Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), commonly known as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, is a growing health problem in the United States and around the world. The disease is characterized by an increasing inability to breathe combined with chronic cough, wheezing, and chest tightness. It is estimated that 30 million individuals in the United States live with the disease, but only half that number is currently diagnosed. One in four Americans over the age of 45 live with COPD, yet it remains widely an under-recognized and under-funded disease. Although it is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, COPD ranks 155th in terms of research funding by the National Institutes of Health.
The disparities are not limited to research funding. In the last thirty years, COPD deaths among women have increased four-fold. COPD is often perceived as a man’s disease, yet approximately 7% of American women reportedly live with the disease compared to 5.8% of men. More than 7 million women are known to live with COPD and millions more are undiagnosed – but why?
Researchers believe the rise in COPD in women can be attributed to an increased number of female smokers in the 1960s and 1970s. The liberation movement inspired a wave of ad campaigns around tobacco products targeted towards women and teenage girls. In the late 1960s, female-oriented brands like Virginia Slims made smoking a symbol of progressive ideals, independence, and sex appeal. By 1973, the rate of 12-year-old female smokers rose 110% since the launch of such campaigns.
COPD is a progressive disease in all people, yet some evidence suggests that cigarette smoke and other lung irritants are particularly damaging to female lungs. The smaller size of female airways may make women more vulnerable, and estrogen may cause nicotine to be broken down in a way that is more harmful to the lungs.
The signs and symptoms of COPD tend to be overlooked, not only by those affected, but health professionals as well. In addition to a general lack of understanding and awareness around the disease, most women are misdiagnosed with asthma which delays their receiving appropriate treatment. Early detection of the disease is key in treating it and slowing its progression.
The COPD Foundation is committed raising the public profile of COPD to address the critical challenges facing women and anyone suffering from the disease. The COPD360social online community provides peer-to-peer support and free educational materials.