January 20, 2020
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Chronic breathing disease striking Maine women, study finds

Prevalance, by percent, of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, in adults age 65+, 2011

More than 48,000 women in Maine, about 8 percent of the state’s population, suffer from a chronic respiratory disease that’s increasingly threatening the health of women across the country, according to a new report.

Women are 37 percent more likely than men to be diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and now account for more than half of all COPD deaths nationally, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Lung Association. The number of deaths from COPD among women has more than quadrupled since 1980, and the disease has claimed the lives of more women than men in the U.S. each year since 2000, the report found.

More than seven million women in the United States currently suffer from COPD.

“COPD, which once was known as a disease that plagues older males, is rapidly rising in the female population,” Jeff Seyler, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Northeast, said in press release announcing the report. “Our latest report sheds some light on why this disparity exists and what we can do as a nation, as a state and as individuals to help alleviate the burden on COPD patients, their families and their caregivers.”

COPD refers to a group of progressive lung diseases that make breathing difficult, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. The disease leads to coughing that produces large amounts of mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness.

COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, trailing only heart disease and cancer.

Smoking is the primary cause of COPD, although it also has been linked to genetics and some environmental pollutants.

The report identified risk factors that combine to increase COPD’s burden on women, including the tobacco industry’s success marketing its products to women in the late 1960s. Women may be more susceptible to the lung damage caused by tobacco smoke and environmental pollutants, the report said. Women with COPD tend to develop the disease at a younger age, are less likely to be diagnosed than men who have the same health histories and symptoms, and are more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status, the report found. Women living with COPD also were found to struggle more to quit smoking and to suffer with more COPD flare-ups, a sudden worsening of symptoms often caused by a cold or other lung infection.

The disease typically is diagnosed in middle-aged or older adults. In Maine, 17,700 women aged 65 and older, or more than 14 percent, have COPD, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate is lower among men of the same age, at just under 12 percent.

The symptoms of COPD typically are more intense in women, and the disease affects them at an earlier age than men, the lung association report found.

“This report demonstrates the critical need for us to do all we can do to prevent COPD and diagnose the disease early,” Dr. Douglas Couper, a physician and member of the leadership board of the American Lung Association in Maine, said in the release.

In Maine, the American Lung Association highlighted the report in pushing lawmakers to restore state funding for tobacco prevention efforts and programs that help people to quit smoking. The state eliminated $1.5 million for those programs, including federal matching dollars, and dropped Medicaid coverage for prescription drugs that help smokers quit.

“To reduce the number of Maine residents affected by COPD, we need to further reduce smoking and provide residents with access to the resources they so desperately need to quit this deadly addiction,” Ed Miller, senior vice president of public policy for the American Lung Association in Maine, said in the release.

The American Lung Association offers support groups for those affected by COPD, known as Better Breathers Clubs, in Bangor, Biddeford and Rockland. For information on the clubs or to speak with a lung health clinician, call the Lung HelpLine at 800-LUNG-USA.

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