According to a new study presented by the Morehouse School of Medicine, patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are at a significantly higher risk of heart failure than those who do not have the disease.

The researchers found the risk to be especially high among African-American COPD patients, no matter what their age.

“COPD is the third-leading cause of death in the United States,” lead study author Srinadh Annangi said in an interview with Healthline. “Being a chronic inflammatory disease, COPD itself is a risk factor for heart failure, which, if present, leads to increased mortality and morbidity in COPD cases.”

“The relationship between COPD and coronary heart disease has been well studied, but substantially less information exists concerning the coexistence of COPD and heart failure,” Annangi said.

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The Link Between COPD and Heart Failure

To investigate the prevalence of heart failure in COPD cases, Annangi and team used a national representative sample of hospital discharges across the U.S. from 2001 through 2010.

Researchers found that about 28 percent of the COPD patients studied had heart failure. Furthermore, about 35 percent of African-Americans with COPD had heart failure, compared with only about 15 percent of the non-COPD African-American population. European-Americans with COPD were second to African-Americans, with about 28 percent having heart failure, compared with about 12 percent of European-Americans without COPD, according to the press release.

Researchers also found that as COPD patients aged, their risk of heart failure increased. For patients ages 80 years and older, about 38 percent of those with COPD had heart failure, compared with about 24 percent of those who did not have COPD, according to the press release.

“The prevalence of heart failure is significantly higher in patients with COPD compared to the background population,” the study authors wrote. “African American patients with COPD had the highest prevalence of heart failure compared to all other races, regardless of age group.”

Patients hospitalized and diagnosed with both COPD and heart failure also had higher mortality rates, a longer average length of stay, and a greater need for long-term care, said the researchers.

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Identifying the Warning Signs 

Because COPD and heart failure often coexist and have overlapping symptoms, people with COPD should be cautious if they experience chest pain or discomfort, palpitations, or lightheadedness. Recognizing these symptoms can help determine whether there is a problem and could lead to an early diagnosis of heart failure, said Annangi.  

However, more research is needed in order to fully understand the link between these two conditions.  

“The coexistence of COPD and heart failure presents many diagnostic and therapeutic challenges,” Annangi said. “Further research should focus on early diagnosis of heart failure in COPD cases and optimal therapeutic approaches for these coexisting comorbidities.”

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Other Complications for COPD Patients

Besides the risk of heart failure, according to Mayo Clinic, COPD patients are also at a high risk for respiratory infections, high blood pressure, lung cancer, and depression.

Other complications include sleep disorders, osteoporosis, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and pneumonia, according to a report from the University of Maryland Medical Center.