Your lungs are amazing and incredibly hard-working organs. But they are not immune to the passage of time. As you age, so do your lungs, and it's helpful to understand how your lungs change, what's natural, and what could be a signal that you need to talk to your doctor.

First, a little "Lungs 101." Your lungs are part of your respiratory system, a group of organs and tissues that work together to help you breathe. Lungs have two main functions: to get oxygen from the air into the body and to remove carbon dioxide from the body. The oxygen helps fuel your body’s functions, and carbon dioxide gas is a waste product your body produces when it uses oxygen. Your lungs are filled with millions of air sacs, called alveoli, where these gasses pass between the bloodstream and the airways.

Did you know that your lungs actually have no muscles? They expand to draw in air and contract to expel air with the help of your diaphragm, a strong wall of muscle that separates your chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. Your ribs are bones that support and protect your chest cavity. They move slightly to help your lungs expand and contract. So, your lungs, muscles and bones work together as you breathe.

As you age, changes affect your lung tissue, muscles and bones, which all impact your breathing. The maximum amount of air your lungs can hold—your total lung capacity—is about six liters. That is about three large soda bottles. Your lungs mature by the time you are about 20-25 years old. After about 35, their function declines as you age and as a result, breathing can slowly become more difficult over time. In a person without lung disease, most of these changes are due to cardiovascular and muscle changes, not changes to the lungs themselves.

There are several body changes that happen as you get older that may cause a decline in lung capacity:

  • Alveoli can lose their shape and become baggy.
  • The diaphragm can, over time, become weaker, decreasing the ability to inhale and exhale. This change will only be significant when exercising.
  • Ribcage bones become thinner and change shape, altering the ribcage so that it is less able to expand and contract with breathing.
  • Nerves in airways that trigger coughing become less sensitive to foreign particles. When particles build up in the lungs, they can damage the lung tissue.
  • As you age, your immune system may weaken, leaving you more vulnerable to infections like influenza (the flu) and pneumonia.

These changes can result in symptoms such as tiredness and shortness of breath. These changes can also leave you at increased risk of respiratory infections like pneumonia.

There are several simple ways to help protect your lungs and maintain better lung function throughout your life.

  • Don't smoke – Smoking damages your lungs and will compound the effects of aging. Need help quitting? We can help.
  • Avoid air pollution – Indoor and outdoor air pollutants can damage your lungs. Secondhand smoke, outdoor air pollution, chemicals in the home and workplace, and radon all can cause or worsen lung disease.
  • Exercise –Regular exercise can help keep chest muscles strong.
  • Watch your weight – Abdominal fat can impede the diaphragm's ability to fully expand the lungs. A combination of both healthy eating and exercise will double the benefit to your lungs.
  • Get up – Lying in bed too long allows mucus and fluid to settle in your lungs, which can harm lung capacity.
  • Get regular healthcare – Regular check-ups help prevent diseases, even when you are feeling well. This is especially true for lung disease, which sometimes goes undetected until it is serious.
  • Get your annual flu shot and ask your doctor if you should be vaccinated for pneumonia.

Changes are natural, as our lungs enter their "golden years." However, these changes should be gradual and subtle. If your lung capacity changes dramatically or suddenly, or if you develop symptoms like a cough that won't go away, talk to your doctor. One simple warning sign might be if you are having trouble keeping up with people your own age. If so, talk to your doctor.

Your lungs have been with you since your first breath, and with a little care and caution, should be there for you for many more years.

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