COPD a Major Cause of Death, Disability

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the fourth leading cause of death and the second leading cause of disability in […]

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the fourth leading cause of death and the second leading cause of disability in the United States. More than 12 million people are diagnosed with COPD and an additional 12 million likely have the disease without knowing it.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a serious lung disease that over time makes it hard to breathe. You may have heard COPD called other names, like chronic bronchitis and emphysema. In people who have COPD, the airways — tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs — are partly blocked, which makes it hard to get air in and out.

COPD is relatively new in the lung disease world. In 1903, more Minnesotans were dying from tuberculosis—one in ten—than from any other disease. At that time, the American Lung Association of Minnesota (ALAMN) sent mobile x-ray units around the state to screen for TB, as well as educate people about prevention.

As tuberculosis waned and cigarette smoking came into vogue, ALAMN began to campaign against tobacco use. Long before the Surgeon General’s Report of 1964 declared smoking to be a cause of cancer, ALAMN was educating Minnesotans about the dangers of smoking and developing programs to help them quit.

Smoking is the most common cause of COPD, accounting for as many as nine out of ten COPD-related deaths. The disease occurs most often in people age 40 and over who have a history of smoking (current or former smokers), but as many as one of six people with COPD never smoked. ALAMN is currently focused on a broad-based COPD education and outreach campaign.

COPD also can also occur in people who have had long-term exposure to lung irritants such as certain chemicals, dust, or fumes in the workplace. Heavy or long-term exposure to secondhand smoke or other air pollutants many also contribute to COPD. In some people, COPD is caused by a genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin, or AAT deficiency. It is estimated as many as 100,000 Americans have AAT deficiency. n

For more information about COPD and ALAMN programming, visit or call 651-227-8014.

Jill Heins, M.S. is the director of respiratory health with the American Lung Association of Minnesota. Cheryl Sasse, RRT, directs professional education for the American Lung Association of Minnesota.

A Test for COPD:

1. Do you cough several times most days?

2. Do you bring up phlegm or mucus most days?

3. Do you get out of breath more easily than others your age?

4. Are you older than 40?

5. Are you a current or former smoker?

Many people have COPD and don’t know it. To find out if you could have COPD, consider this short interactive questionnaire developed by the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. It has been scientifically evaluated and shown to identify people who are more likely to have COPD. If you answer “Yes” to three or more of the above questions, you should talk to your doctor about any trouble you have with your breathing. In addition, you can take steps to reduce your exposure to COPD risk factors, such as quitting smoking or encouraging your family members to do so.

  • Wash your hands! Hands that look can still have icky germs!
  • Work with your care provider to stay healthy. Protect yourself. Vaccines are your best protection against being sick.

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