What are your lungs trying to tell you? 5



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Until three years ago, Gail was exceptionally active, pouring enormous time and energy into her job every day. However, this routine began to feel increasingly difficult.

“I was exceptionally tired, and I just coughed… and coughed and coughed and coughed. I felt my voice was getting deeper. I was feeling very ill.”

Gail, then in her late 60s, had never once landed in hospital, so the idea of seeing a doctor didn’t come naturally. “Like everybody, I thought ‘it never happens to you’, so I didn’t really believe that I was as sick as I was. But reality hit after a little while.”

When she finally got her diagnosis, Gail learned she had been living with severe Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) for at least three years.

COPD is an umbrella term for lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthma, which cause airflow limitation that is not fully reversible. COPD affects 14%, or one in seven Australians aged 40 or over.1 This figure increases to 29% in Australians aged 75 or over. 1 After heart disease, stroke and cancer, it’s Australia’s biggest cause of death and disease burden.

COPD is typically associated with shortness of breath and a repetitive cough. People who unknowingly have COPD may mistake these symptoms as signs of ageing, lack of fitness or asthma – a simple spirometry test organised through a doctor can diagnose COPD.

While COPD currently has no cure, there are things that people can do to be more active, breathe more easily, keep out of hospital and improve their quality of life.2

To those experiencing the early symptoms of COPD, Gail has a powerful message: don’t ignore it.

“I would be devastated if I couldn’t go into the garden at least for an hour a couple of times a week. But if you ignore this and think ‘this is going to be all right’, you won’t be able to.’

“You have to help yourself. You really have to give your body a chance to be able to do the things that you want to do.” 

Starts at 60 has teamed up with Lung Foundation Australia to urge readers to recognise the symptoms of COPD early. Click to learn more.

 Now 71, Gail is adjusting to a new, very different life with COPD.

“It’s very, very debilitating day-by-day,” she says. “If you’re struggling for breath, it’s really hard, and what you have to do is keep going.”

“I did a pulmonary rehabilitation course for three months, which I think saved my life, because after I finished that I realised that my new life was going to start from there.”

This “new life” revolves around a single, all-important goal: staying out of hospital. This means looking after her lungs each and every day with activities that can help keep the worst at bay: daily breathing exercises, tai chi, walking the dog and gardening.

“I don’t go one day without doing something to help my lungs… I never miss. I know that to keep myself out of hospital, I have to do the exercise.”

Gail’s illness has only led to one hospital stay; an experience she is very eager not to repeat.

“I’m exceptionally careful. Because when you’re in hospital with pneumonia, you’re very, very sick. And hopefully if I can be as careful as I am, it won’t happen again.”

COPD is the second leading cause of preventable hospitalisations in Australia. Hospitalisations can be avoided if COPD patients receive the right care and treatment. So the best thing to do is speak to your GP about how you can stay well and out of hospital.

If you have noticed yourself or a loved one with COPD:
• Coughing more than usual
• Finding it harder to breathe than usual
• Feeling more tired than usual
• Noticing a change in phlegm colour/volume…

Please speak with your doctor immediately, or click here to learn more about the warning signs of a COPD exacerbation (flare up of symptoms). Stay well and stay out of hospital. 


This post is sponsored by Lung Foundation Australia. It was written as we believe it delivers valuable health insights into a subject important to the Starts at 60 community. For more information about COPD, please visit the Lung Foundation website.



  1. Toelle B, Xuan W, Bird T, Abramson M, Atkinson D, Burton D, James A, Jenkins C, Johns D, Maguire G, Musk A, Walters E, Wood-Baker R, Hunter M, Graham B, Southwell P, Vollmer W, Buist A, Marks G. Respiratory symptoms and illness in older Australians: The Burden of Obstructive Lung Disease (BOLD) study. Med J Aust 2013;198:144-148
  1. McKenzie DK, Frith PA, Burdon et al on behalf of The Australian Lung Foundation. The COPDX Plan: Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for the Management of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease 2014, found at copdx.org.au


  1. Yes I have lived with COPD for a few years now and reading this today made me think whether my cough is linked to it. I’m 63 and just retired and I feel I need to get my lungs into better shape so I have joined a gym Also will be doing Pilates a little yoga, walking. Very interesting reading. Will get my cough checked..

  2. How true is this? I started having trouble breathing after a holiday in Singapore and Hong Kong.
    This was followed by a diagnosis of asthma. At 29 I was devistated. I went through hell. I was then referred to a specialist who perscribed a drug called Sigular. I became so ill and if not for the luck of god a doctor advised me that possibly through this drug I had contrated Churg Strauss. Never heard of it then look it up. It attacks the immune system. At 68 through a specilist in immune diseases I am one of the lucky ones that is in remission. However I have COPD and have to work really hard at maintaining a resonable life style and staying out of hospital. So Gails story is without a doubt very real.

  3. Yes i have COPD i been in hospitalwith pneumonia this year am seeing a lung specialist but am doing exercises zumba pilates yoga walking and my lung capacity has improved i will just have to keep up with this for the rest of my life am only 63

  4. I have bronchiectasis, have had it for years. I’ve just finished treatment for Hep C, which I got in a blood transfusion, the treatment worked. But after all these years my immune system is virtually destroyed, and I’m prone to bronchitis also had pleurisy and pneumonia. Apparently my results with the last bout of pneumonia were pretty bad and the doc asked why I refused to go to hospital. It was at the peak of the swine flu epidemic and I’m pretty sure I would have caught it if I’d gone in.

  5. Yes, I too have COPD, I have the cough and get out of breath easily. I do work part time as a crossing supervisor with one of our local schools. That’s for an hour twice daily , but I do need to exercise more. I’m active around the house with most chores but find it difficult vacuuming and mowing my lawn. Fortunately my grandson that lives with me does my vaacuming and mows my lawns … It will be springtime soon and I’ve promised myself to go walking for more exercise..

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