What happens to your lungs as you get older? Here’s what you need to know about how aging affects your respiratory system and how you can make your lungs even healthier than they are right now.
Your body goes through many changes as you grow older. If you’re experiencing signs of aging – such as silver hair and wrinkles – you may think that only your skin is affected by the passing of time. However, your respiratory system is also impacted. Your lungs are essential organs that keep you alive and it’s wise to keep them strong and healthy.
Aging on Heart and Lung Health
- As you age, the heart muscle weakens. Since the heart has to work harder to pump blood through your body, it becomes less efficient at doing so.
- By age 65, your heart works about 20 percent less efficiently than it did when you were young.
The muscles of the lungs also weaken with age, which means they can’t expand and contract as easily as they once did:
- This can cause problems when breathing in cold weather or high altitudes because there isn’t enough air available to fill your lungs and expel carbon dioxide properly.
- You may feel shortness of breath or develop a cough while exercising outdoors during cold weather or traveling at high altitudes.
What Lungs Do
Your respiratory system helps you to breathe. The chief responsibility of your lungs is to pull new air (oxygen) into your body while expelling waste gases (carbon dioxide).
Your respiratory muscles include the intercostal muscles, diaphragm, and abdominal muscles. As these get weaker, it becomes more difficult to breathe deeply and fully.
Your Respiratory System Loses Elasticity
Over time, your lungs can lose their ability to expand and recoil after breathing out.
This condition is called pulmonary stiffness.
It makes it harder for you to take deep breaths, which can eventually lead to shortness of breath or even COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
The good news is that there are some things you can do to reverse this process — or at least slow it down. Try the following solutions.
Prioritize Physical Activity to Help Improve Respiratory System
Most people are more sedentary than they realize and will benefit from increased physical activity:
- Exercise helps build lung capacity by strengthening muscles in the chest and abdomen, so they can work better with the diaphragm — the muscle that expands your lungs when you breathe in. For this reason, it’s helpful to exercise daily.
- Exercise improves your lung function and reduces your risk of lung disease. It also helps you maintain a healthy weight, which – if you’re overweight or obese – is crucial for keeping your respiratory system functioning well into old age.
- Exercise is believed to improve the strength of tiny blood vessels in your lungs and around them (called capillaries), which helps them deliver oxygen more efficiently throughout your body. That’s why exercise can help reduce shortness of breath caused by conditions like heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Certain exercises can bolster the posterior chain of muscles – such as rear deltoids, lats, and rhomboids – as well as the abdominals. Strengthening the back side of your body helps improve posture by reducing slouch and undue pressure on the lungs.
Practicing proper posture helps keep your back straight, your spine long, and your shoulders pulled back slightly. This will help keep airflow open in those tiny passageways between the ribs where oxygen enters our lungs each time we inhale fresh air into them.
Lungs Have Less Reserve Capacity as you Age
Your lungs have less reserve capacity as you age. This is the ability to breathe in a deep breath – the deeper the breath, the higher up your lungs can expand.
A healthy person has a reserve capacity of six liters; for someone who smokes, that number drops to two liters; for someone who’s obese, it may be just one liter.
In general, you have a higher risk of respiratory infections as you age, when your body’s ability to fight off infections is reduced. This means that even minor respiratory infections can have a more significant impact on your health and well-being.
If you smoke or suffer from chronic health conditions such as obesity or diabetes, this risk increases further:
- Smoking tobacco cigarettes has been linked with a decreased ability to expand your chest cavity during breathing — so even if you’re in good shape otherwise, smoking can further weaken your ability to breathe deeply and fully.
- Smoking reduces the ability of the lungs to produce mucus (which helps trap germs), while obesity and diabetes cause inflammation in the lungs that make them more vulnerable to infection.
Pneumonia is a Leading Cause of Death for Older Adults
Pneumonia is a bacterial infection of the lungs that can be caused by a virus or bacteria. It can be spread through coughing, sneezing, or touching contaminated surfaces. If not treated with antibiotics, pneumonia can lead to death.
- If you’re over 60 years old, get vaccinated for the flu and pneumonia. In addition to getting a flu shot every year (or opting for an intranasal vaccine).
- It’s important for older adults to get a pneumonia shot if they are 65 years or older. It’s also recommended that those with chronic illnesses or weakened immune systems receive this vaccine as well.
Chances of Getting Lung Cancer Can Be Reduced with Lifestyle Interventions
Statistically, there is approximately a 1 in 16 chance of getting lung cancer.
It’s a bit more common in men in their late 60s (or older) and much more common in smokers (of all genders).
According to the ACS, lung cancer is “by far the leading cause of cancer death, making up almost 25% of all cancer deaths. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.”
To avoid lung cancer, it’s wise to avoid cigarette smoke, radon, and other cancer-causing agents. A healthy diet helps significantly as well as consistent exercise that strengthens the respiratory system. Since stress has a tendency to negatively impact health, it can also be beneficial to incorporate deep breathing and mindfulness into your weekly routine.
Your Respiratory System Is More Vulnerable to Negative Influences
Your lungs are also unique because they are exposed to the outside environment, unlike other organs that are protected by membranes or skin. Your brain and heart are protected by skull bones and ribs, respectively, while other internal organs have membranes that sac them off from the blood supply (for example, the stomach is surrounded by a thick layer of mucus).
There have been studies that indicate that some nutrition supplementation can be helpful in reducing the risk of respiratory tract infections – particularly in the nose, sinuses, and throat. These supplements include:
- vitamin D
- garlic (for prevention, to enhance the immune system)
- vitamin C (for prevention)
- and zinc.
Some of the above supplements can interfere with medications or can be dangerous when taken in excess, so ask your medical doctor about the correct dosage for you.
The respiratory system consists of the nose, sinuses, larynx (or voice box), trachea (or windpipe), bronchi (or bronchial tubes), and alveoli. This is where oxygen enters your body and carbon dioxide leaves it through tiny air sacs called alveoli. Once there’s enough oxygen in these sacs, it travels into smaller blood vessels where it becomes part of your bloodstream so it can reach all parts of your body.
A Healthy Respiratory System is Part of a Vibrant Life
It’s important to take care of your lungs as you get older so they continue to function properly. Your lungs are the most important organs in your body. You can’t live without them and they have to work properly every day you’re alive.
The more knowledge you have about how your body works, the better you can treat them better now – and into the future.
It all starts with knowing where your weak spots are, and taking the necessary steps to strengthen them. Exercise helps keep you strong physically and mentally, so don’t forget to include it in your daily routine.
If you feel like your lungs aren’t functioning properly or notice they’re taking longer than usual to recover after exercise then schedule an appointment with your doctor immediately. And if you’re not sure what kind of exercises will benefit you most, ask an expert, or refer to the workout articles on this site.
Additional Sources about Lung Health:
Bolstering the Respiratory System – https://examine.com/topics/upper-respiratory-tract-infection-risk/
Lung Cancer Basics – https://www.cancer.org/cancer/lung-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/prevention.html
Regarding Pneumonia – https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/pneumonia/five-facts-you-should-know