As many as 12 million adults in the United States have been diagnosed with COPD, and just as many people have COPD or are developing it—but are unaware of it, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.
One question many people who have COPD worry about—but are often too afraid to ask—is: how long can I live with COPD?
There is no hard and fast rule to predict the life expectancy of those who have COPD. While there's no doubt that having this progressive lung disease shortens your lifespan, how much it is shortened depends upon lots of variables. Things like your overall health and whether you have other diseases such as heart disease or diabetes all come into play.
Researchers have tried to come up with a general way to measure life expectancy in those with COPD. One method is by “staging” the disease. Staging means a measure of the severity of COPD. The Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) came up with a measurement system called the GOLD system. It uses the forced expiratory volume (FEV1), a test that determines the amount of air a person can forcefully exhale in one second, to categorize severity of COPD:
- Stage 1: very mild COPD with a FEV1 about 80 percent or more of normal.
- Stage 2: moderate COPD with a FEV1 between 50 and 80 percent of normal.
- Stage 3: severe emphysema, with FEV1 between 30 and 50 percent of normal.
- Stage 4: very severe COPD, with a lower FEV1 than Stage 3 or those with Stage 3 FEV1 and low blood oxygen levels.
In general, the higher the stage of COPD, the worse the prognosis is.
But other scientists believe that there is more to measuring the severity of COPD than just the FEV1. These experts have developed another measure of life expectancy called the BODE index. BODE stands for:
- body mass
- airflow obstruction
- exercise capacity
This takes into account an overall picture of how COPD affects your life.
The body mass index (BMI), or weight adjusted for height, is used to determine overweight or obesity. BMI can also be used to determine whether you are too thin. People who are too thin have a worse prognosis (prediction of the outcome of a disease).
This refers to the FEV1, as in the GOLD system.
Dyspnea means trouble breathing. Some studies have suggested that those who have more trouble breathing have a worse chance of survival than those who have a better ability to breathe.
This means how well you are able to tolerate exercise. This is often measured by a test called the “six minute walk test.”
What is the upshot of these methods of predicting life expectancy? In short, the more you can do to keep from progressing to a higher stage of COPD the better. And the best way to slow down the progression of the disease is to stop smoking if you smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke or other irritants like air pollution, dust, or chemicals.
It's also helpful to keep your weight up with good nutrition and techniques to increase food intake (such as eating small frequent meals), and to learn how to improve breathing with exercises such as pursed lip breathing.
The more you can do to improve your overall health, the longer and fuller a life you'll have.