Women Who Never Smoked are Vulnerable to Develop COPD

African-American Women are Susceptible to COPD

Background: COPD is the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States and a main cause of disability.  The prevalence (how often it occurs) has been higher among women than men in most age groups for over 20 years. One reason is that females have narrower breathing tubes allowing cigarette smoke to be more concentrated in their overall smaller lungs. Although cigarette smoking is the major risk factor for the disease, never-smokers may also develop COPD. Study:  Esme Fuller-Thomson, Ph.D., and colleagues from the University of Toronto published the results of an observational study to examine gender and racial differences for developing COPD among never smokers. The researchers reviewed information on 129,535 Caucasians and African-Americans who were 50 years of age and older who had never smoked. The findings were published in the 2016 International Journal of Chronic Diseases.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2016/5862026
Never-smoking African-American women are at risk for COPD

African-American woman at risk for COPD

Results: Women had a significantly higher chance of developing COPD than men. In particular, African-American women had the highest prevalence of COPD (7.0%) followed by Caucasian women (5.2%), Caucasian men (2.9%), and African-American men (2.4%). Discussion: The authors suggested that differences in lung size may be a factor for higher likelihood in females. Other possibilities are the role of hormones and exposure to second-hand smoke. Dr. Fuller-Thomson commented that, “We cannot determine causality with this data set, but poverty is associated with increased exposure to city environments. Future research needs to investigate if these factors play a role in the greater vulnerability of African-American females.” My Comments: These results raise many questions. Why are there sex differences in never smokers developing COPD? Why are there differences in COPD between Caucasian and African-American females? It is important that health care professionals consider testing older individuals who complain of shortness of breath or persistent cough including those who are never smokers.

Donald A. Mahler, M.D. is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. He works as a pulmonary physician at Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, NH, where he is Director of Respiratory Services.