Take care of your lungs during your Golden Years
The lungs are incredible and amazingly hard-working organs. They are not immune to time’s passage, though. Your lungs age with you, and it’s useful to understand in what ways your lungs change so that you can discern what is normal and what could be a symptom you need to report to your doctor.
Know Your Lungs
The respiratory system is made up of tissues and organs that work in unison to help you breathe. Lungs have two leading roles: taking oxygen from the air for the body and removing carbon dioxide from the body. Oxygen gives the body fuel to function, and carbon dioxide gas is a waste product produced when the body uses oxygen. Lungs contain millions of air sacs, alveoli, where oxygen and carbon dioxide pass between the bloodstream and airways.
Lungs themselves have no muscles. The diaphragm, a wall of muscle between your chest and abdominal cavities, causes the lungs to expand to draw air in and contract to expel it. Rib bones support and protect the chest cavity, which moves a bit to help the lungs contract and expand. Together, the lungs, muscles, and bones achieve breadth.
The changes of aging affect lung tissue, muscles, and bones, all of which impact breathing. Lungs reach maturity about the age of 20-25 years. From about age 35 onwards, lung function declines with aging, which can result in a slowing of breath and in breathing becoming more difficult. In the absence of lung disease, most of these changes are the result of muscle and cardiovascular changes:
- The bones of the ribcage can thin and consequently change in shape, which can decrease its ability to expand and contract.
- Alveoli lose their form.
- The diaphragm might weaken, which will be evident during exercise.
- Airway nerves that normally lead to coughing desensitize, allowing particles to build up which can cause lung tissue damage.
- With aging, the immune system may also weaken, leaving the body more vulnerable to lung-related infections like pneumonia and influenza.
Protecting the lungs and maintaining better lung function:
- Stop smoking or don’t start – Smoking damages the lungs compounding the effects of aging.
- Get regular exercise – Excercise maintains and strengthens chest muscles, and movement keeps mucus and fluid from settling in the lungs.
- Maintain a healthy weight – Fat in the abdominal area keeps the diaphragm from working correctly.
- Breath clean air – Air pollutants, such as home and workplace chemicals, secondhand smoke, and industrial air pollution, cause lung damage.
- See the doctor regularly – Regular check-ups are particularly crucial in the case of lung disease, which sometimes goes undetected until it is dangerous. And, the annual flu shot and possible pneumonia vaccine could be vital to your respiratory health.
Aging lungs will undergo changes and decreased capacity; however, if drastic or sudden changes occur or severe symptoms develop, like a cough that won’t go away, an immediate visit to the doctor is warranted. One simple warning sign to look for: trouble keeping up with people the same age.
Respiratory health is at the core of taking care of an aging body, but these simple steps can keep older adults on the right track.