Emphysema — Its Effects On The Elderly

3 min readAug 30, 2020


What is emphysema?

First things first, emphysema is a disease related to lungs that causes shortness of breath, similar to that experienced by asthma patients. According to medical sources, emphysema occurs when the alveoli (air sacs in the lungs) get damaged. In very simplified terms, alveoli work like little sponges in the lungs, helping you to properly take in oxygen while inhaling and get the carbon dioxide out while exhaling. In affected people, over time, the inner walls of the alveoli weaken and break down. This creates larger air spaces instead of the many small ones usually found in the lungs. This creates two major issues. Firstly, it reduces the total surface area of the lungs and in turn, the amount of oxygen that reaches your bloodstream. Secondly, when you exhale, the damaged alveoli do not work properly and the old air becomes trapped. This increases the proportion of carbon dioxide in your lungs, which is what ultimately causes shortness of breath.

But shortness of breath is such a light symptom that people ignore it. This results in emphysema in the elderly and sometimes they go years without noticing anything serious. By the time it does get serious and they consult medical help, it is too late to return to normalcy.

Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). No known cure can completely treat it. But there are some ways to manage it and it can certainly be prevented.

The root of emphysema

The top cause of emphysema is cigarette smoking. Less than twenty percent of smokers develop the disease. But more than eighty percent of people affected by emphysema are non-smokers. Passive smoking can be as big of a culprit as active smoking here. Repeated exposure to cooking fires, heavy dust or chemical fumes in factories can also cause this issue. Living in cities or environments with very bad air quality can also lead to emphysema in the elderly.

Fighting the disease

The methods to prevent it are to reduce the effect of the causes themselves. Even if you’re a light smoker, stopping the habit altogether might be the best way forward. If you’re a chronic smoker or live with one, try de-addiction methods or get the required medical help to stop smoking. Reducing repeated exposure to the cooking fire, smoke and heavy dust can also go a long way in preventing the onset of emphysema.

If you’re living in the vicinity of a factory that belches out chemical fumes or if you work in one, a change of environment can do a world of good. The same goes for living in cities with bad air quality. If moving is not possible, then wearing a mask can help mitigate the problem to a small extent. An N-95 mask would be the best option, but if that’s not available, even a simple mask would be better than nothing.

Shortness of breath is such a light symptom that many of the elderly blame it on ageing or lack of fitness. But the keyword in COPD is ‘chronic’. If shortness of breath persists, even for simple activities like walking short distances, bathing or getting dressed, then getting yourself checked by a doctor is imperative.

Proper acknowledgement of symptoms is the best way to prevent emphysema in the elderly. And prevention altogether comes down to lifestyle choices. The ball is always in your court.




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