Most people want to get healthier. Rarely, though, do they think about protecting and maintaining the health of their lungs.
It’s time to change that. According to the , chronic lower respiratory diseases — including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma — were the third leading cause of death in 2010. Lung diseases, excluding lung cancer, caused an estimated 235,000 deaths that year.
Include lung cancer, and the numbers go up. The American Lung Association (ALA) states that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women. An estimated 158,080 Americans were expected to die from it in 2016.
The truth is that your lungs, just like your heart, joints, and other parts of your body, age with time. They can become less flexible and lose their strength, which can make it more difficult to breathe. But by adopting certain healthy habits, you can better maintain the health of your lungs, and keep them working optimally even into your senior years.
1. Don’t smoke or stop smoking
You probably already know that smoking increases your risk of lung cancer. But that’s not the only disease it can cause. In fact, smoking is linked to most lung diseases, including COPD, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and asthma. It also makes those diseases more severe. Smokers are more likely to die from COPD than nonsmokers, for example.
Every time you smoke a cigarette, you inhale thousands of chemicals into your lungs, including nicotine, carbon monoxide, and tar. These toxins damage your lungs. They increase mucus, make it more difficult for your lungs to clean themselves, and irritate and inflame tissues. Gradually, your airways narrow, making it more difficult to breathe.
Smoking also causes lungs to age more rapidly. Eventually, the chemicals can change lung cells from normal to cancerous.
According to the , more than 10 times as many U.S. citizens have died prematurely from cigarette smoking than have died in all the wars fought by the U.S. during its history. In addition, smoking causes about 90 percent of all lung cancer deaths in men and women. More women die from lung cancer each year than from breast cancer.
No matter how old you are or how long you’ve been a smoker, quitting can help. The ALA states that within just 12 hours of quitting, the carbon monoxide level in your blood drops to normal. Within a few months, your lung function begins to improve. Within a year, your risk of coronary heart disease is half that of a smoker’s. And it only gets better the longer you stay smoke-free.
Quitting usually takes several attempts. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. Combining counseling and medication may be the best way to succeed, according to a report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
2. Exercise to breathe harder
Besides avoiding cigarettes, getting regular exercise is probably the most important thing you can do for the health of your lungs. Just as exercise keeps your body in shape, it keeps your lungs in shape too.
When you exercise, your heart beats faster and your lungs work harder. Your body needs more oxygen to fuel your muscles. Your lungs step up their activity to deliver that oxygen while expelling additional carbon dioxide.
According to a recent , during exercise, your breathing increases from about 15 times a minute to about 40 to 60 times a minute. That’s why it’s important to regularly do aerobic exercise that gets you breathing hard.
This type of exercise provides the best workout for your lungs. The muscles between your ribs expand and contract, and the air sacs inside your lungs work quickly to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide. The more you exercise, the more efficient your lungs become.
Creating strong, healthy lungs through exercise helps you to better resist aging and disease. Even if you do develop lung disease down the road, exercise helps to slow the progression and keeps you active longer.
3. Avoid exposure to pollutants
Exposure to pollutants in the air can damage your lungs and accelerate aging. When they’re young and strong, your lungs can easily resist these toxins. As you get older, though, they lose some of that resistance and become more vulnerable to infections and disease.
Give your lungs a break. Reduce your exposure as much as you can:
- Avoid secondhand smoke, and try not to go outside during peak air pollution times.
- Avoid exercising near heavy traffic, as you can inhale the exhaust.
- If you’re exposed to pollutants at work, be sure to take all possible safety precautions. Certain jobs in construction, mining, and waste management can increase risk of exposure to airborne pollutants.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that indoor pollution is typically worse than outdoor. That, plus the fact that many spend most of their time indoors these days, increases exposure to indoor pollutants.
Here are some tips for decreasing indoor pollutants:
- Make your home a smoke-free zone.
- Dust the furniture and vacuum at least once a week.
- Open a window frequently to increase indoor air ventilation.
- Avoid synthetic air fresheners and candles that can expose you to additional chemicals like formaldehyde and benzene. Instead, use an aromatherapy diffuser and essential oils to more naturally scent the air.
- Keep your home as clean as you can. Mold, dust, and pet dander can all get into your lungs and cause irritation.
- Use natural cleaning products when possible, and open a window when using products that create fumes.
- Make sure you have adequate fans, exhaust hoods, and other ventilation methods throughout your home.
4. Prevent infections
Infections can be particularly dangerous for your lungs, especially as you age. Those who already have lung diseases like COPD are particularly at risk for infections. Even healthy seniors, though, can easily develop pneumonia if they’re not careful.
The best way to avoid lung infections is to keep your hands clean. Wash regularly with warm water and soap, and avoid touching your face as much as possible.
Drink plenty of water and eat lots of fruits and vegetables — they contain nutrients that help boost your immune system.
Stay up-to-date with your vaccinations. Get a flu shot each year, and if you’re 65 or older, get a pneumonia vaccination as well.
5. Breathe deeply
If you’re like many people, you take shallow breaths from your chest area, using only a small portion of your lungs. Deep breathing helps clear the lungs and creates a full oxygen exchange.
In a small study published in the , researchers had a group of 12 volunteers perform deep breathing exercises for 2, 5, and 10 minutes. They tested the volunteers’ lung function both before and after the exercises.
They found that there was a significant increase in vital capacity after 2 and 5 minutes of deep breathing exercise. Vital capacity is the maximum amount of air the volunteers could exhale from their lungs. The researchers concluded that deep breathing, even for just a few minutes, was beneficial for lung function.
The ALA agrees that breathing exercises can make your lungs more efficient. To try it yourself, sit somewhere quietly, and slowly breathe in through your nose alone. Then breathe out at least twice as long through your mouth. It may help to count your breaths. For example, as you inhale count 1-2-3-4. Then as you exhale, count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.
Shallow breaths come from the chest, and deeper breaths come from the belly, where your diaphragm sits. Be aware of your belly rising and falling as you practice. When you do these exercises, you may also find you feel less stressed and more relaxed.
Try to incorporate these five habits into each day: Stop smoking, exercise regularly, reduce your exposure to pollutants, avoid infections, and breathe deeply. By focusing a little of your energy on these tasks, you can help keep your lungs working optimally for life.