As you age, your respiratory or breathing system ages, too. Your lungs become stiffer and expand and contract less easily. Similar to the other muscles in your body, the muscles that support your breathing become weaker, making it harder to stretch your chest in order to breathe. You may start breathing more shallowly to compensate, especially if you're ill or in pain. When you cough, it may not be as effective as it used to— in other words, your coughing isn’t clearing the mucus from your lungs as well as it used to.
All of these changes can result in an increased susceptibility to getting respiratory infections. You might notice a decreased ability to exercise or weakened endurance for exercise. But even as you age, you should be able to carry out normal activities without too much trouble.
When It Isn’t Just Old Age
If you are experiencing more serious problems with your breathing, such as constant coughing with or without producing sputum, breathlessness, wheezing, and chest tightness—you may have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. COPD is a term used for several progressive lung diseases, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD is most often caused by smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke, but exposure to other lung irritants over time, such as air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust, can also contribute to its development.
A person with COPD has difficulty breathing- either due to blocked airways on account of swelling and excess mucus, or because the tiny air sacs located at the end of the airways have lost elasticity and collapsed—or both. COPD can severely limit your ability to engage in the kinds of physical activities you enjoy. It can even limit your ability to perform basic activities of living, such as showering or cleaning the house.
The symptoms that people experience with COPD are not a natural part of the aging process, so if you are having trouble with breathlessness, wheezing, or a chronic cough, it's important to see your doctor. There is no cure for COPD, but there are treatments that can help you to breathe better and remain more active. Treatment in the early stages of COPD can even slow down the progression of the disease.
When you visit your doctor, he or she will ask about your symptoms. A chest x-ray or other test may be ordered. The most important test to diagnose COPD is a spirometry test. For this test, you breathe as forcefully as you can into a mouthpiece attached to a measuring device. The spirometer measures how quickly you can move air out of your lungs, and how much air is expelled. While it's normal to have a decrease in the amount of air you can expel from your lungs as you age, this is even further diminished in COPD, and your doctor will know the difference.
If you're diagnosed with COPD, you'll most likely be given medications to help with your breathing. You'll also learn more about your lungs and find ways to engage in activities that don’t cause you to get out of breath.