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Respiratory health concerns become more prevalent as people age and develop various physical symptoms, conditions and traumas. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the rate of ambulatory-care visits for respiratory care is highest among people aged 85 and older.

There are several physical and airway changes that explain how people’s respiratory health changes – and often declines – as they age, and it’s important that providers, patients, families and caregivers understand these changes and how to identify them.


How aging changes the airway


As people age, the body undergoes many changes that affect lung tissue, muscles and bones, all things that impact breathing functions. Breathing generally becomes more difficult over time during aging, resulting in decreased lung capacity. Some key airway changes that occur as we age include:


  • Alveoli can lose their shape and become baggy.
  • The diaphragm can become weaker, decreasing the ability to inhale and exhale. This change will only be significant when exercising.
  • Ribcage bones become thinner and change shape, altering the ribcage so that it is less able to expand and contract with breathing.
  • Nerves in airways that trigger coughing become less sensitive to foreign particles. When particles build up in the lungs, they can damage the lung tissue.
  • As people age, the immune system may weaken, increasing the body’s vulnerability to infections like the flu and pneumonia.


Changes in lung capacity


The maximum amount of air one’s lungs can hold – or the total lung capacity – is around six liters, which is the equivalent of about three large bottles of soda.


The lungs continue to mature as individuals age. After the age of 35, it is common for lung function to begin gradually declining. This natural decline in lung function and capacity manifests in various ways, including a loss of elasticity in lung tissue and less room for lung expansion.


Risk of airway obstruction


Aging automatically presents an increased risk for airway obstruction, and decline in muscle tone, weaker immunity and other factors subject older demographics to obstruction and greater respiratory issues.


Some of the risk factors for airway obstruction as people age include:


  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Exposure to infections. Infectious and aspiration pneumonia are major factors in airway obstructions among elders.
  • Dysphagia and other swallowing disorders. Numerous conditions can lead to swallowing issues, but dementia is a common culprit. Dementia can further complicate airway obstructions by interfering with patient compliance and understanding.


Remaining knowledgeable and taking precautions


Aging is an inevitable fact of life, and everyone experiences the physical side effects of aging at some point. Despite this fact, individuals can still work to maintain and optimize their respiratory health by communicating with providers and regularly seeking out resources and treatments to help them take care of their airway, and keep their breathing healthy and strong, for as long as possible. Read this VIP Care article to learn more about how aging impacts respiratory health, and ways individuals can protect their lung health over time.


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