Smoked when you were younger? How it could catch up with health in older age

Despite kicking the habit, many ex-smokers will experience lung problems in their later years. Still, there are ways to manage symptoms in older age. Source: Getty

Whether it’s seeing a loved one struggle to breathe, the gruesome images on cigarette packages or even the sheer cost of keeping up the habit, there are many reasons why people decide to quit smoking.

A driving factor for many is the health benefits of quitting, which includes reducing the risk of developing lung disease, lung cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes, while also helping the immune system better fight off infection and even improving sense of taste and smell.

“If you already have a lung condition, quitting smoking can slow the progression of the disease and the rate of loss of lung capacity,” Nicole Parkinson, Lung Foundation Australia Respiratory Support Nurse, tells Starts at 60. “Every cigarette you don’t have helps improve your lung health.”

The earlier you quit, the better it’s going to be for your lung health and reducing health risks in future. Still, one in three Australians currently live with a lung disease and despite kicking the habit, many ex-smokers will experience lung problems in their later years.

One of the biggest lung issues is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) – an umbrella term for conditions that narrow the airways and make it harder to breathe. Common COPD conditions include emphysema (where air sacs in the lungs become damaged and make it harder to breathe), chronic bronchitis (where the bronchial tubes become swollen and increase mucus production) and chronic asthma (which sees the lung’s airways become inflamed causing coughing, tightness and shortness of breath).

There are immediate benefits to quitting smoking at any age, with the largest reduction in health risks in those who quit the earliest.
There are immediate benefits to quitting smoking at any age, with the largest reduction in health risks in those who quit the earliest. Source: Shutterstock

“The damage to the airways may start many years before symptoms such as breathlessness and coughs are noticeable and people may experience COPD even before they quit smoking,” Parkinson says.

Read more: Many Aussies with a serious lung condition don’t know they have it

Other symptoms such as tiredness, persistent coughs and increased phlegm or mucus typically present slowly and mildly and may be mistaken as normal signs of ageing or a lack of fitness. Because the symptoms are easily dismissed, many people fail to bring them up with their doctor. A key sign is if these symptoms are new or persistent.

“Instead, people tend to automatically adjust their daily activities to accommodate or reduce their symptoms rather than getting help,” Parkinson says, noting they may not be receiving life-changing treatments as a result.

Doctors can perform a breathing test called a spirometry, which measures the volume of air inhaled and exhaled, to assess the health of the airways and give health professionals more information about the cause of the symptoms and whether it’s a specific lung condition causing them. In addition to COPD, there are more than 30 types of lung disease – many caused by smoking – which health professionals will be able to diagnose.

Doctors may use a spirometry to assess lung health.
Doctors may use a spirometry to assess lung health. Source: Getty

There are no cures for COPD conditions, but early treatment slows the progression of symptoms and reduces the risk of a flare-ups, hospitalisations and even death.

“Knowing the early warning signs of lung disease can help you receive treatment before the disease becomes serious or life-threatening. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important you make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible,” Parkinson says.

Aside from visiting a doctor for regular check ups there are other ways people can protect their lungs as they age. Regular exercise maintains fitness and reduces symptoms such as breathlessness.

“If you get breathless during your normal daily activities you may start to avoid exercise, however, this can cause your muscles to weaken and you’ll lose fitness over time,” Parkinson explains.

In some cases, health professionals will refer patients to a pulmonary rehabilitation program to ensure people exercise safely and manage breathlessness.

It's important to keep up physical activity to improve lung function.
It’s important to keep up physical activity to improve lung function. Source: Getty

Maintaining a healthy diet through nutritious food is also important. People with chronic lung conditions can use up to 50 per cent more energy than those with healthy lungs because the body works harder to breath and fight infection.

It’s also vital to minimise the spread of germs through good hand hygiene and stay up-to-date with vaccinations. Over-65s and those with lung conditions are at increased risk of influenza and pneumonia because the immune system weakens and makes it harder for the body to fight off infection and disease.

Read more: The key vaccines all over-60s should know about

Seasonal influenza and pneumonia vaccinations are now available and can be discussed with a health professional.

“It’s important to remember breathlessness and cough are not normal and should be fully investigated with your doctor,” Parkinson adds.

Did you smoke in your younger years? Has it impacted your health as you’ve aged?

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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