COPD in Women: Key Findings

COPD in Women Increasing More Rapidly Worldwide

Background: COPD in women receives little attention as a health issue even though more women die of COPD each year than of breast cancer and lung cancer combined. The general perception that COPD is a disease of older men is outdated. Throughout the world, COPD is increasing more rapidly in women than in men. Since 2000, more women than men in the United States die of COPD.

Dr. Jenkins has written about COPD in women

Professor Christine Jenkins

Review: Dr. Christine Jenkins of Sydney, Australia, and co-authors described the impact of female sex on COPD in a review article in the March 2017 issue of Chest, volume 151; pages 686-696.

Key Findings about COPD in Women: 1. For the same amount of smoking or exposure to irritants in the air, women are more susceptible to developing COPD. 2. The reasons for smoking may differ between sexes. Dr. Jenkins proposed that female empowerment through tobacco smoking and weight control are likely two reasons that women smoke. 3. Women with COPD are generally younger, smoke less, and have a lower body weight for their height than men. 4. Women tend to have more shortness of breath than men for the same level of breathing tests results. 5. In a 3-year study in the US, it was found that women had more frequent flare-ups (exacerbations) of COPD than men.

Female with COPD

How Does COPD Affect Women? In many studies it was noted that women have poorer health status and quality of life compared with men. Women with COPD report higher levels of anxiety and depression than men with COPD which adds to the burden of the disease in women.

Treating Women with COPD: Smoking cessation is an important treatment for anyone with COPD. However, women may be less successful with long-term smoking cessation than men, especially with nicotine replacement therapy. Current evidence shows that inhaled bronchodilators work the same in women as in men.

COPD in Women

Summary: The authors concluded that it is important to raise awareness of COPD in women and to develop new strategies to prevent the disease.  They also emphasized the need for educational programs for women with COPD and their families to manage their disease better.

My Comments: I offer the following two general impressions based on my pulmonary practice, although I have no explanation for these observations. 1. Women with COPD seem more motivated to “get better” and use prescribed inhalers as recommended. 2. Women are more likely than men to actually participate in pulmonary rehabilitation programs.

 

Can Depression Affect my Breathing and COPD?

Depression Occurs in 25% of those with COPD

Dear Dr. Mahler:

I wanted to know your thoughts on whether depression can affect my breathing. I am 57 years old and have had COPD for about 3 years. I seem to be tired all of the time and get short of breath with little activity. I was treated for depression when I was in my 20s, but have been fine until about 3 months ago. I work as a teacher’s aide in a grade school in my town, and am now off for the summer. I quit smoking soon after I was told that I had COPD. I have an appointment with a nurse practioner in a few weeks. What do you think?

Karen from Tupper Lake, NY 

Dear Karen:

I encourage you to discuss your concerns with your health care provider. Being tired and feeling short of breath may be due to various causes including a low red blood cell level (anemia), low thyroid function (hypothyroidism), another medical problem, and a psychological condition. I suspect that the nurse practioner will order tests to check for these possibilities.

Man with depression

Man with depression

Depression is considered a mood disorder caused by changes in chemicals within the brain. According to the World Health Organization, it is estimated that 21% of women and 12% of men in the U.S will experience an episode of depression at some point in their lifetime. Recent reports from the United Kingdom and from the U.S. found that about one in four (25%) of those diagnosed with COPD suffer from depression over a three year period.

The risk of an episode of depression is related more to how may episodes you have had in the past rather than life stresses. Your previous treatment in your 20s simply means an increase in risk for another episode. That is why is important that your health care provider do a complete evaluation of all possible causes of your symptoms.

Effects of depression

Effects of depression

This condition can affect your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and overall physical health. Typical feelings are sadness, hopelessness, guilt, moodiness, and loss of interest in friends and family. You may find that it is hard to concentrate or make decisions. It is common to withdraw from others, use drugs or alcohol to “numb yourself” in order to temporarily feel better, and miss work or other commitments. Other symptoms are lack of energy and changes in appetite resulting in weight gain or weight loss.

Depression is usually diagnosed by excluding other medical conditions and by your answers to a questionnaire. Once again, tell you health care provider how you are feeling and that you were treated for depression in the past.

Best wishes,

Donald A. Mahler, M.D.

 

What’s New About Breathlessness

Dr. Denis O’Donnell (Kingston, Ontario, Canada) and I wrote a review called Recent Advances in Dyspnea (medical word for breathlessness) in the January 2015 issue of the journal CHEST (pages 232-241). The review covered new research information about breathing difficulty over the past 4 years.

Here is information about how breathlessness affects daily life.

Dr. Denis O'Donnell, Professor of Medicine at Queen's University, in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Dr. Denis O’Donnell, Professor of Medicine at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario,

  1. Of 2,258 individuals with severe COPD, breathlessness was worse upon awakening in the morning.
  2. Most individuals reported that their breathing varied from day to day and from week to week.
  3. Treatment with a long-acting bronchodilator reduced the variability in breathing difficulty.
  4. Women generally report more breathlessness than men.
  5. In the United Kingdom, 20% of menopausal women reported breathing difficulty. This may be related to low levels of estrogen and progesterone which could affect mood.
  6. Obesity is associated with an increase in breathlessness.
  7. Anxiety and depression are more common in those with heart and lung diseases.

Here are some of the key findings about treatment.

  1. Most long-acting bronchodilators inhaled once or twice daily improve breathing difficulty in those with COPD.
  2. In general. the improvement in breathlessness is greater with two different bronchodilators in a single inhaler compared with one bronchodilator in an inhaler.
  3. Individuals with COPD reported less breathlessness related to anxiety after 8 weeks in a pulmonary rehabilitation program compared with “usual care.”

Here is information on new therapies not yet approved to relieve breathing difficulty. These therapies require more testing before use.

  1. Those with COPD had less breathlessness after acupuncture compared with a sham, or pretend, treatment.
  2. Placement of valves or coils into breathing tubes through a scope can deflate the lung and improve breathing difficulty.
  3. Using a breathing machine connected to plastic tubes in the nose (nasal cannula) to assist breathing during walking improves breathing by allowing the breathing muscles to work less.