The rise of COPD
In 1952, a number of publications (including Reader’s Digest) reported on early evidence linking cigarettes and lung cancer. By 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General declared cigarettes a health hazard, kicking off a downward trend in the smoking rate that continues to this day. Only about 16 per cent of Canadians currently have a habit of lighting up. But because of the long-term effects of smoking, we still face the public health aftermath caused by cigarettes in their heyday, when roughly half the population smoked. One major consequence is the increased prevalence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
What is COPD?
COPD is an umbrella term for chronic diseases that cause shortness of breath, coughing and mucus in the airways.
What causes COPD?
Cigarette smoke is the principal cause in 80 to 90 per cent of COPD cases. Other risk factors include workplace exposure to certain dusts (e.g., inhaling coal or grain residue), childhood respiratory infections and a rare genetic defect that weakens the lungs. These conditions progress slowly, increasingly affecting your breathing over time, and can eventually become fatal. The two most common types of COPD are chronic bronchitis, an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes; and emphysema, which is when the air sacs in the lungs weaken and eventually rupture.
How is COPD diagnosed?
The most reliable way to diagnose COPD is with spirometry, in which a machine gauges lung function.
How prevalent is COPD?
At last count, there were about 832,100 Canadians with COPD, a number that’s been climbing since the 1950s. It’s currently the country’s fourth leading cause of death, after cancer, heart disease and stroke.
Who faces the greatest risk?
Women die from COPD at a disproportionately higher rate than men: the number of deaths each year is roughly equal between the genders, even though there have always been fewer female smokers. In recent years, COPD has rivalled breast cancer as a primary threat to the lives of Canadian women. Scientists suspect women are more vulnerable because their lungs are typically smaller and because estrogen may affect the way the body breaks down cigarette smoke, leading to a greater accumulation of toxic metabolites.
What lies ahead?
Studies suggest COPD is underdiagnosed and undertreated. This indifference may be related to the stigma around smoking. But many picked up the habit in their teens, some at a time when cigarette companies were still marketing to impressionable youth. Better public awareness of this disease could prevent more young people from following suit, so it’s worth working to dispel the cloud of shame.