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COPD awareness continues to rise, new NIH survey finds

Yet many at risk do not talk to their doctor about symptoms

For Immediate Release:
November 21, 2011, 12:00 PM EST

Awareness of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), the nation's third leading killer, continues to rise in the United States, according to the results of a Web-based survey released today by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health. 

Seventy-one percent of surveyed adults said they are aware of COPD, compared with 65 percent in 2008.  Awareness among those most at risk – current and former smokers – increased even more.  Among current smokers, awareness rose to 78 percent, up from 69 percent in 2008.   Awareness among former smokers rose to 76 percent, up from 68 percent in 2008.

COPD is a serious lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe and can cause long-term disability and death.  The condition is estimated to affect 24 million men and women in the United States – but as many as half of them remain undiagnosed.  November marks COPD Awareness Month.

"COPD is surpassing other diseases as a major killer in this country.  We want to reverse this trend by educating people about the symptoms, so they can get proper treatment as early as possible," said James P. Kiley, Ph.D., director of the NHLBI Division of Lung Diseases. "It is not enough to have heard of COPD.  Those at risk need to know the signs so they can talk to their health care provider about any breathing problems they are having and, hopefully, find relief."

COPD symptoms – such as shortness of breath, chronic coughing or wheezing, producing excess sputum, or feeling unable to take a deep breath – come on slowly and worsen over time. COPD can occur through long-term exposure to substances that can irritate the lungs, such as certain chemicals, secondhand smoke, and dust or fumes in the workplace.  COPD can also occur in people with a genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.

COPD occurs most frequently in current and former smokers.  Twenty-seven percent of current smokers surveyed stated that, over the past year, they had suffered from a chronic cough or wheezing or had been too short of breath to do normal activities – more than double that of the general population (13 percent).  Yet 40 percent of the smokers who had experienced symptoms reported they had not talked with a doctor or other health care provider about their symptoms.

"The real tragedy is that COPD symptoms are too often ignored.  By the time an individual feels the symptoms are severe enough to warrant follow-up, they have often lost as much as half of their lung function," said Kiley.  "There is no cure for COPD yet, but we have come a long way in terms of treatments that improve the capacity to perform daily activities and the overall quality of life for those with the disease – and to get tested is easy and painless."

COPD is diagnosed with a simple, noninvasive breathing test called spirometry, which can be conducted in a doctor's office.  Taking the test involves breathing hard and fast into a tube connected to a machine that takes measurements such as the total amount of air exhaled and the amount of air exhaled in the first second.

The NHLBI analyzed the results of the annual HealthStyles survey, which explores public health attitudes, knowledge, practices, and lifestyle habits.  The survey is conducted each year by Porter Novelli, the communications contractor for NHLBI's COPD Learn More Breathe Better® campaign.  The latest survey, conducted in summer 2011, was a nationally representative sample of 4,161 consumers with a margin of error of 1.5 percentage points.

The NHLBI launched the COPD Learn More Breathe Better campaign in 2007 to increase awareness and improve knowledge about COPD among those already diagnosed and at risk for COPD as well as health care providers – particularly those in a primary care setting.  One of the program's latest efforts, Country Conquers COPD, aims to reach and raise knowledge of COPD among at-risk people at country-themed fairs and festivals across the nation.


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