Know the age of your lungs this COPD month

Max V. de Leon

Posted at Nov 21 2019 04:29 PM

A man lights a cigarette outside a small restaurant in Mandaluyong in this file photo. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA -- Did you know that your lungs can be decades older than your actual age? This is specially true for people who smoke or with history of regular cigarette smoking.

While lungs naturally mature as people age and affects their ability to inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, some may see their lungs age at a faster rate due to illnesses, lifestyle and environment. Warning signs include shortness of breath, wheezing and cough. 

When you experience these conditions regularly, it may be time that you visited a medical professional, advised pulmonary specialist Dr. Lenora Cañizares-Fernandez.

This, Fernandez said, is because these are already the chief complaints of people suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which is fast becoming the third leading cause of death worldwide and seventh in the Philippines.

Fernandez, the immediate past-president of the Philippine College of Chest Physicians (PCCP), said one test that will detect COPD is spirometry. It will determine the health and age of your lungs. Through the spirometer, experts will measure the movement of air into and out of your lungs, then, using a standard formula, they will be able to tell you the age of your lungs.

In the Philippines, Fernandez said patients who undergo spirometry pay around P600 to P4,000, depending on the hospitals and diagnostic centers. But since the apparatus costs around P200,000 per unit, most medical facilities at the primary care level, and even in some private diagnostic centers, don’t have spirometers yet.

Smoking and COPD

Cigarette smoking, according to Fernandez, is the major risk factor for COPD. In 2007, the prevalence of COPD among adults was already at 14%, and this is projected to increase rapidly because there are still around 16 million Filipinos who smoke.

“COPD can become apparent in smokers 10 to 20 years after the start of smoking. With the number of Filipinos smoking still high, the prevalence of COPD in the country will continue to grow in the next 10 to 20 years also,” Fernandez said.

Studies showed that 90 percent of those with COPD are smokers. In the Philippines, Fernandez said it has been proven that even non-smokers develop COPD, particularly the members of households that depend on firewood and charcoal in cooking their food and those who are exposed to dusty jobs. 

“COPD patients suffer breathlessness and chronic cough, severely affecting lifestyle and productivity. The estimated economic cost of COPD in the Philippines — including health care expenses, productivity losses and premature death — is at P17.6 billion annually,” Fernandez noted.

Lung age and smokers

Experts define lung age as the average age of a nonsmoker with a forced expiratory volume at 1 second (FEV1) equal to that of the person being tested. Expressing the spirometry result in terms of lung age makes it easier to understand. 

Smokers, for instance, will be able to accept immediately the extent of the damage that they’ve caused to their lungs, especially if they see the big disparity between their actual age and the age of their lungs. This, in turn, may just convince them to quit smoking.

A study conducted in England showed that for every 14 smokers who were told their lung age, one smoker will decide to quit.

COPD Day

Several jurisdictions around the world are ramping up awareness campaigns for COPD every November, to coincide with the World COPD Day.

In the Philippines, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued a proclamation declaring every third Wednesday of November as the National COPD Day.

Fernandez said this year’s theme is “All together to end COPD.”

PCCP, in cooperation with UAP, a division of pharmaceutical and healthcare company Unilab Inc., and other partners, are now conducting seminars, fora and meetings with stakeholders to drum up awareness for the disease, as well as the “Philippine COPD Guidelines/Pathway.”

COPD guidelines

“The guidelines will become the standard clinical approach in the detection, diagnosis and management of COPD across all levels of heath care. This will be incorporated in the Universal Health Care (UHC) Act, so implementation will be from the primary care at the local government unit (LGU) level up to the specialists,” Fernandez said.

The initial phase of the draft, which is meant for primary health care providers, or the so-called “frontliners,” was already submitted by the PCCP to the DOH - Essential Non-Communicable Diseases Division (ENCDD).

“Our guidelines for the primary health care level has been reviewed by the DOH-ENCDD and can aid in the care of COPD patients at the frontline,” Fernandez said.

The next phase of the COPD Guidelines/Pathway, she added, is meant for the specialists. “There are only about 800 (COPD) specialists in the country, so we need the help of all the doctors, especially at the primary health care level,” Fernandez noted.

Section 17(c) of the UHC Act, or Republic Act 11223, mandates that province-wide and city-wide heath systems should have proactive and effective health promotion programs or campaigns, while Section 30 institutes health literacy campaigns with focus on reducing non-communicable diseases.