Health

An urgent call-out to older Aussies: Speak to a doctor about your lungs

When Meredith Lores was diagnosed with a chronic lung disease in 2015, she was devastated. But she now looks back on this as a blessing in disguise, marking her first step toward the happier, healthier lifestyle she now enjoys.

COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) is a leading cause of death in Australia  after heart disease, stroke and cancer – as well as the second biggest cause of avoidable hospital admissions.

It’s an umbrella term that covers emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthma – long-term illnesses that damage the small airways to the lungs and make each breath more difficult.

Common symptoms of COPD include:

  • Coughing more than usual
  • Finding it harder to breathe than usual
  • An increase or change in phlegm
  • Feeling more tired or less energetic than usual.
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A COPD diagnosis is not the end of a healthy lifestyle, but an urgent call to action. Participating in pulmonary rehabilitation (a tailored exercise program) can help those with COPD reduce symptoms, stay out of hospital and maintain their quality of life. Click here to learn more.

Meredith suspected she had the warning signs for several years. “I couldn’t do what other people could do at my age. Contrary to what people think, breathlessness is not a normal part of ageing,” she says.

“I was also extremely overweight, so that also contributed to my breathing problems.”

But it wasn’t until a series of chest infections that she finally saw a doctor and received a diagnosis.

Meredith is among the one in seven Australians over 40 with COPD, though half of sufferers have yet to be diagnosed – and many who do aren’t necessarily aware of what they can do about it.

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“Most people have heard of asthma or lung cancer but you don’t often hear about COPD. When somebody actually says to you ‘you’ve got COPD’, you won’t necessarily understand what that means.”

Resigned to life with a chronic illness, Meredith soon fell into a depression, which lead in turn to morbid obesity. She looks back at this time of inaction as “a huge mistake”.

Meredith’s life turned around when she changed GPs to somebody more proactive. Her new doctor assured her life could get easier. Losing weight was an important first step.

“At the time I could walk 500, maybe 700 metres, and I’d have to have a rest. That would take me half an hour.”

“Since then, I’ve lost 45 kilos. I now walk 4.5 kilometres every day.”

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“I’m what they class as moderate COPD. I’ve been told that if I can keep my weight at a regular level and keep up my exercise, I’ll probably do quite well – and I may not have to ever go onto oxygen, which is a huge driving force.”

Meredith urges her fellow over-60s to take their lung health seriously – and sooner rather than later.

“If your breathing habits have changed, you need to go and see someone. Find a doctor who’s proactive. Ask questions, and if they need to send you on to a specialist: again, find one who’s proactive.”

“If you think you have the symptoms, you’ve got to take a look at that. The earlier you are diagnosed, the sooner you are able to take control and actively manage it so you can enjoy a better quality of life. You can bury yourself if you choose to. But rehab is a must for everyone with COPD.”

She now volunteers with Lung Foundation Australia to help spread this vital message to those most at risk. “If it can keep just one person out of hospital, it will be worth it.”

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“A lot of people think ‘I can’t do it’. And not everybody will be able to walk 4.5km every day. But if they can do a 10 minute walk each day, especially if they’re in a later stage of COPD, any exercise will help them stay out of hospital.”.

“Give it a go. It may not be as hard as you think.”

If you have experienced an increase in coughing, a shortness of breath, low energy or a change in phlegm, please see your doctor.

Click here to learn more about the symptoms of COPD, or call Lung Foundation Australia on freecall 1800 654 301 for more information.

Stay well and out of hospital

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is the second leading cause of preventable hospitalisations in Australia. Every exacerbation (flare-up of symptoms) does long-term damage.

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