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How to Keep Your Respiratory System Healthy as You Get Older

What happens to your lungs as you get older? Here’s what you need to know about how aging impacts your respiratory system and how you can keep your lungs healthy with each passing year.

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.

Do You Regularly Experience Shortness of Breath?

Breathlessness is a common, nonspecific symptom. When someone experiences breathlessness, it could mean a variety of different things.

For example, they could just be unfit:

  • people often put on body weight without realizing it, which can cause shortness of breath during sudden physical exertion;
  • as people get older, they sometimes don’t realize that when they take on some kind of physical activity that they haven’t done for a little while that they can get breathless.

On the other hand, shortness of breath can also indicate something more serious.

Dyspnea is a medical term for when someone regularly experiences shortness of breath.

Dyspnea is a common symptom in many illnesses and conditions, such as lung disease, pulmonary hypertension, heart failure, and cancers.

There can be much suffering that goes along with the shortness of breath, such as anxiety and dependence on others for help around the house and doing errands. Some people with dyspnea find that they can only walk ten or twenty feet before they feel a need to stop and rest.

What Your 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.

Difficulty Breathing? When Your Lungs Are the Problem

Sometimes, the problem with shortness of breath stems from the lungs themselves.

If you suspect something might be wrong in your lungs, a chest x-ray can offer helpful clues, as can lung function tests.

Also, in a small percentage of people, breathlessness can happen because of small clots going up to the lung – in which case a CT scan of the chest would help determine if that’s indeed what’s happening.

But how do you know if it might be cancer?

mature athlete exercises to fight aging and improve his respiratory system

There are several symptoms of lung cancer (though keep in mind that these symptoms can also all be caused by much less severe conditions). These symptoms include:

  • a cough that won’t go away;
  • a change in a cough that you’ve had for a long time;
  • being consistently short of breath;
  • coughing up phlegm with signs of blood in it;
  • chest or shoulder pain when breathing or coughing;
  • a noticeable loss of appetite, unexplained tiredness, or weight loss.

If you think you have any of these symptoms, go and see your doctor. If lung cancer is diagnosed earlier rather than later, treatment is more likely to be successful.

Aging on Heart and Respiratory Health

Aging is associated with less blood flow in full-body exercises:

  • With age, the heart can weaken. If you become less active as you get older, the left ventricle of your heart may become stiffer, which may mean less oxygenated blood is pumped into your body.
  • As you get older, your risk of heart disease and other age-related health problems increases. However, the rate of aging varies from person to person and can be influenced by many factors, such as genetics or lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise.

Our bodies also naturally lose muscle strength as we age, particularly if we eat the standard modern diet and live a typically sedentary lifestyle.

The reason people get breathless because of a problem with the heart is that the heart is not able to pump out enough blood – and if the heart isn’t able to pump out enough blood, then there’s less oxygen that goes around, and that causes breathlessness.

Though many people with a coronary obstruction experience angina – that dull, heavy pressing in the chest with uncomfortable tightness – not everyone experiences that. For some people, the first symptom they experience during coronary obstruction is shortness of breath.

If you want to know whether your heart is structurally healthy or not, you can have:

  • an ECG.
  • an echocardiogram.

An ECK is an electrocardiogram that records the electrical signal from the heart.

The echocardiogram tells you if you have a strong heart, and if, while pumping at rest, it’s pumping commensurate with the body’s requirements. It also provides clues to the condition of the heart valves.

Respiratory Changes Due to Aging

As we age, our ability to perform actions that require cardiovascular fitness decreases. We walk less quickly and for shorter distances, and our ability to run and jump diminishes. The lungs and our joints get stiffer. This is partly due to decreased cardiovascular function, but some respiratory changes compound the problem.

Moreover, because some of these changes occur even with little or no physical activity, the effect is exacerbated when we don’t exercise regularly.

The good news is that there are some things you can do to reverse this process — or at least slow it down. 

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.
  • 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 slouching.

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.

Decline in Respiratory Function May Be Experienced Due to Aging

Your lungs start to mature when you’re around 25-30 years of age. According to the American Lung Association, at around 35, it’s normal to have some decline in your lung function due to the factor of age. 

However, it’s also very much possible for your lungs to stay healthy and tip-top as you age.

Your lungs work like an engine in a car: they inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. This process keeps the body functioning properly and healthy.

As we get older, however, our bodies tend to lose their ability to do these things as efficiently as they once did. This is why we need more rest when we get older — because we’re unable to use as much energy as our younger selves could.

Chances of Getting Lung Cancer Reduced with Lifestyle Interventions

Here are some things you can do, including making changes in lifestyle, that might help prevent lung cancer.

Say Goodbye to Tobacco Cigarettes

Many people would agree that the best way to reduce lung cancer risk is to stop smoking and avoid inhaling other people’s smoke.

If you’ve been smoking for years, don’t be discouraged. You can still quit and reduce your risk for lung cancer.

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.
woman over 50 combats aging by strengthening her respiratory system

If you’re a smoker, quitting is the best way to reduce your risk of lung cancer. If you quit smoking before cancer develops, your damaged lung tissue will gradually start to repair itself. No matter your age or how long you’ve smoked, quitting may lower your risk of lung cancer and help you live longer.

If you’d like to quit smoking and need help in doing so, see this article: “How to Quit Tobacco.” If you’d like to call the American Cancer Society to talk, call at 1-800-227-2345.

Eat a Healthier Diet

Some people who get lung cancer do not exhibit obvious risk factors.

However, some evidence demonstrates that regular vegetable consumption can prevent lung cancer in both smokers and non-smokers. Even so, the benefits of a healthy diet, including a lot of vegetables, are much less than the increased risk of lung cancer due to smoking.

Avoid Radon Exposure

Radon is a radioactive gas that is emitted naturally from the ground in granite-rich areas. Radon is an important cause of lung cancer, and you can prevent yourself from developing cancer due to radon exposure by testing and treating yourself at home if required. Please see: “Radon and Cancer.” for more information. Generally, limiting your exposure to all types of radiation is wise.

Be Wary of Cancer-Causing Agents

Avoid exposing yourself to cancer-causing agents at workplaces or outdoors; when people work in places where exposures to such agents are common, they should be kept at a minimum. For more information, please see: “Lung Cancer Risk Factors.”

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).

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.

You generally 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.

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 yearly (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.”

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 separate them from the blood supply (for example, the stomach is surrounded by a thick layer of mucus).

Studies indicate that some nutrition supplementation can help reduce the risk of respiratory tract infections – particularly in the nose, sinuses, and throat. These supplements include:

  • echinacea
  • 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 be dangerous when taken in excess, so ask your medical doctor about the correct dosage.

A Healthy Respiratory System Is Part of a Vibrant Life

Getting older may sometimes seem a wee bit daunting, but there are so many ways to maintain a healthy mind and body.

Taking care of your lungs as you age is essential to continue functioning properly. Your lungs are vital organs within your body. You can’t live without them; they must work correctly every day you’re alive.

The more knowledge you have about how your body works, the better you can treat them 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, schedule an appointment with your doctor immediately. And if you’re unsure what kind of exercises will benefit you most, ask an expert, or refer to the workout articles on this site.

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, becoming part of your bloodstream so it can reach all parts of your body.

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 tends to impact health negatively, it can also be beneficial to incorporate deep breathing and mindfulness into your weekly routine.

Additional Sources about Lung Health:

Respiratory Tissue in the Aged – https://www.lung.org/blog/your-aging-lungs

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

Physiology of Older Lungs – https://www.nursingtimes.net/roles/older-people-nurses-roles/anatomy-and-physiology-of-ageing-2-the-respiratory-system-2-27-02-2017/

Regarding Pneumonia – https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/pneumonia/five-facts-you-should-know

How Aging Impacts Blood Flow – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC150384/

The Aging Heart: What Happens – https://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/what-happens-to-your-heart-as-you-age

As Joints Get Older – https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/ageing-muscles-bones-and-joints