Taking Her Breath Away: The Rise of COPD in Women


American Lung Association report reveals that women are at greater risk than men

W omen are 37 percent more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than men and now account for more than half of all deaths attributed to COPD in our nation. The American Lung Association’s latest health disparity report, “Taking Her Breath Away: The Rise of COPD in Women,” examines the nation’s third leading cause of death and its increased prevalence among women throughout the U.S.

“There is much we can do to address this growing health crisis,” said Jane Warner, President and CEO, American Lung Association in California. “This report includes important recommendations to reduce exposures that cause COPD, and it also helps us highlight our Strategic Plan to Address COPD, which focuses on the need to increase public awareness of COPD and COPD management guidelines, and recommendations for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of COPD.”

COPD is a progressive lung disease with no known cure that slowly robs its sufferers of the ability to draw life-sustaining breath. Only heart disease and cancer kill more Americans than COPD does. Smoking is the primary cause of COPD, but there are other important causes such as air pollution.

“Taking Her Breath Away” identifies key risk factors and reasons why women are more prone to developing COPD than men, including biological, social and cultural factors.

“Despite being the third leading cause of death in the U.S., COPD does not get sufficient attention from federal and state health systems, nor is funding for research into causes and therapies adequate,” said Richard Casaburi, Ph.D., M.D., a volunteer physician for the American Lung Association. Dr. Casaburi is Professor of Medicine at UCLA and directs a laboratory dedicated to COPD research at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute. “Addressing COPD will benefit both women and men living with COPD, as well as their loved ones and their communities, all of which suffer from the impact of this terrible disease.”

Foremost, the rise of COPD in women is closely tied to the success of tobacco industry marketing. Cigarette smoking was rare among women in the early 20th century, but started increasing rapidly in the late 1960s after the tobacco industry began aggressively targeting its deadly products specifically to women.  While nationwide anti-tobacco campaigns and policy changes have successfully decreased smoking rates for both women and men in the recent past, the tobacco industry’s success in addicting women smokers long ago is still resulting in new cases of COPD and other tobacco-related illness in these women as they have aged.

Other key findings include:

• Since COPD has historically been thought of as a “man’s disease,” women are underdiagnosed and undertreated for COPD.

• Women are more vulnerable than men to lung damage from cigarette smoke and other pollutants.

• Women are especially more vulnerable to COPD before the age of 65.

• Women with COPD have more frequent disease flare-ups — a sudden worsening of COPD symptoms that is often caused by a cold or other lung infection.

• Effective treatment of COPD is complicated, and women don’t always get the kind of care that meets their needs.

• The quality of life for women with COPD is impaired at an earlier age, and is worse overall than that of men with similar severity of disease.

The American Lung Association calls on government agencies, the research and funding community, insurers and health systems, employers, clinicians, women and their families to take steps now to address this deadly disease.  These steps include the strengthening of the public health response to COPD, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) creating and supporting a comprehensive COPD program similar to what is already in place for other major public health problems; increased investment in gender-specific COPD research; expanded efforts to protect everyone from harmful exposures that cause COPD such as cigarette smoke and outdoor air pollution; and implementation of health care systems changes to improve the timeliness and quality of COPD care.

“It’s time for the millions of women like me who are living with COPD to break their silence and speak out about the toll that COPD is taking on our lives,” said Grace Anne Dorney Koppel, patient and national spokesperson for COPD awareness. “We need to lead the charge for access to adequate disease management services and social support that will empower us to treat the disease as early as possible and improve the quality of our lives.”

The report is part of the Lung Association’s Disparities in Lung Health Series. To download a full copy, visit lung.org/copdinwomen.