Smoking is a major risk factor for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, but it’s not the only one. About 90 percent of the people who develop this condition do so after years of cigarette smoking, but the other 10 percent develop it due to factors like genetics or occupational exposure to fumes, chemicals, or dust that damages the lungs.
New research suggests that obesity can be a major risk factor for COPD, too, even among people who have never smoked. If you’re obese, you can reduce your risk of COPD by exercising regularly, whether you lose weight or not.
Inhaled Irritants of All Kinds Cause COPD
COPD is usually caused by either emphysema or chronic bronchitis, and it’s progressive. According to the American Lung Association, it’s the third biggest killer of Americans — 134,676 people died of the disease in 2010. More than 12 million adults have been diagnosed with COPD, but twice that many show evidence of reduced lung function that could indicate COPD.
Most people who get COPD smoke tobacco or marijuana, but exposure to secondhand smoke can also increase your risk. People who have asthma and also smoke are at an even higher risk of developing COPD. In the developing world, people get COPD thanks to years of breathing fumes and smoke from cooking and heating fuel. Inhaled irritants like air pollution, dust, smoke, or chemical vapors can also cause COPD, especially if these irritants are inhaled regularly for years.
Genetics Can Lead to COPD
Around one in 2,500 Americans have a condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. This is a hereditary disorder that causes low blood levels of alpha-1 antitrypsin, a protein that’s secreted by the liver and helps the lungs maintain their elasticity. Without it, the lungs lose their ability to deflate, so that stale air remains in the lungs and the person can’t inhale a fresh breath of air. Alpha-1 deficiency can also cause substantial damage to lung tissue. It’s responsible for liver disease in some cases, since it causes the liver to retain alpha-1 antitrypsin instead of secreting it.
Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can be treated by administering a synthetic version of the protein. However, treatment only slows the progression of the disease; it doesn’t undo damage already done to the lungs at the time of diagnosis.
Obesity Can Cause COPD
Obesity can increase your risk of many diseases, and according to a new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, COPD is one of them. Researchers at the University of Regensburg in Germany found a link between a high BMI and obesity, but abdominal fat was found to be of particular concern.
The researchers examined 113,279 men and women aged 50 to 70 who did not suffer from cancer, heart disease, or COPD when the study began. Ten years later, they followed up with the study participants and found that 3,648 of them had developed COPD. The strongest relationship between COPD and obesity seemed to exist in those participants with larger abdomens. The researchers found that women with a waist at least 43.3 inches in diameter and men with a waist at least 46.4 inches in diameter were 72 percent more likely to need medications like Advair for COPD.
However, overall body fat didn’t seem to correlate with increased COPD risk; those whose body fat was more evenly distributed did not demonstrate the same high level of increased risk. Study participants with large hips, who exercised at least five days a week, were found to have a lower risk of developing COPD than their large-bellied counterparts – 29 percent lower, to be exact. The researchers believe that’s because exercise fights inflammation, a key factor in causing COPD.
While obesity may increase your risk of developing COPD even if you’ve never smoked, being underweight will raise your risk of dying from the disease. A 2011 study presented to the European Respiratory Society’s Annual Congress found that COPD patients who are underweight, with a BMI of less than 18.5, were 1.7 times more likely to die of their disease than COPD patients of normal weight. In fact, while weighing too much can cause serious health problems, underweight people run the highest risk of death from any cause.
If you’ve never smoked, you may think you’re safe from COPD, but you could be wrong. While it’s true that the vast majority of people who develop this respiratory condition do so as a result of cigarette smoking, there is a small but significant minority who develop it due to other factors. One of these factors is obesity. New research has found that having a large abdomen, in particular, can make your risk of COPD skyrocket. But it’s not all bad news — exercising regularly can help your body fight inflammation, to lower your COPD risk and help you keep your lungs healthy.