When you were younger, breathing was not something you would normally have to think about unless you were exerting yourself. But according to Dawn Smiddy, Director of Respiratory Therapist program at Bethesda, we are prone to lose lung volume and become more susceptible to respiratory diseases as we age. Knowing this, she recommends seniors make an active effort to improve their respiratory health.

COVID-19 is the biggest challenge to the respiratory systems of seniors today. It is particularly dangerous for those who have other health conditions, like heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

When the virus gets into your body, it enters healthy cells to multiply itself and then spreads to other cells. As the virus attacks your respiratory system, your lungs become inflamed, making it difficult to breathe, which may lead to pneumonia.

Before you are vaccinated, the best defense against COVID-19 is to wear a mask when in public, and staying six feet apart from others. You should avoid large groups of people and poorly ventilated spaces, and wash your hands often. You probably have this same refrain countless times.

But you can also prepare your respiratory system for COVID-19 and many of the other respiratory illnesses that are more common among seniors. Let’s look how these diseases develop and what seniors can do to protect themselves.

Common Respiratory Health Issues for Seniors

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — an inflammatory lung disease that results in obstructed airflow from the lungs. The major cause for COPD is smoking.

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis — common conditions that contribute to COPD. Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining in the bronchial tubes. Emphysema is a condition in which the alveoli (air sacs) at the ends of the lungs are destroyed, either by smoking or other gases or particles.

Asthma — a condition in which airways narrow and swell, making breathing difficult and sometimes triggering a cough and producing a wheezing sound when exhaling.

Dawn points out that there are many different lung conditions that can be the result of a person’s exposure to different substances, chemicals, and other pollutants. “As we get older, we probably all have some form of COPD,” she says. “For example, you can have different kinds of lung damage from raising chickens (histoplasmosis). There is a condition called farmer’s lung (aspergillosis) linked to breathing in the spores of dead leaves, stored grain, compost piles or other decaying vegetation. People with weakened immune systems are susceptible as their body has fewer infection-fighting cells.”

There are so many possible sources of lung damage over the course of a person’s life that Dawn often asks her patients to talk about his or her childhood to discover what they have been exposed to.

What You Can Do to Help You Breathe Easier

There are many ways to help your respiratory system:

Don’t smoke. Also avoid exposure to second-hand smoke.

Keep the air inside your home clean. Use vent fans in bathrooms and kitchens to vent excess moisture.

Try an air purifier to clean the air, and don’t let dust build up in your home (Dawn cites carpeting as a major source of dust and dust mites). Open your windows in warm weather to let in fresh air. This is also important when painting or using cleaning products.

Exercise. A minimum of 20 minutes per day of moderately intense exercise is recommended. But Dawn notes the intensity and type of activity should be based upon the person’s physical abilities. “Some people can walk, but others may have to get their exercise through using their upper body or some other activity,” she says.

She emphasizes the importance of the relationship between the heart and lungs: “If the lungs are damaged the heart has to work harder. If the heart is damaged fluid builds up in the lungs making it more difficult to breathe.”

Practice breathing exercises. Breathing exercises like pursed-lip breathing can improve lung function. Dawn describes the technique as smelling the roses (inhaling through the nose) and blowing out the candles (exhaling through pursed lips). This type of breathing creates back pressure in the lungs that keep the tiny air sacs open. When people with lung disease gasp for air while trying to complete a task, they actually trap air in their lungs and reduce their lung capacity.

Join a breathing club. The American Lung Association sponsors Better Breathers Clubs that provide information about breathing techniques, lung disease, treatments and medications, navigating the healthcare system, and community resources.

Watch your posture. Dawn points out that the lungs are made of soft tissue. “They can only function in the room you provide for them. Slumping in a chair reduces the chest cavity and forces the lungs to operate in a more restricted space,” she says.

Practice relaxation techniques. “Try slow, deep breathing,” Dawn says. “Visualize a place that makes you happy and relaxed—a place where you can find a good memory that makes you smile.”

Eat good foods. Stay away from processed foods. Consume whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Foods high in vitamins and antioxidants and those containing omega-3 are also good. Avoid ice cream, milk, and dairy products as they make the secretions in the lungs thicker, increasing excess mucus.

Eat smaller, more frequent meals. Some people with COPD are malnourished because consuming a large meal forces their stomachs up into their diaphragm which, in turn, compresses the lungs. It is best to eat six smaller meals throughout the day rather than the larger three meals.

Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water. (Note: Some research has shown consuming caffeinated drinks are not good for people with lung disorders, and make breathing more difficult.)

Manage sleep disorders. Sleep apnea, a condition where your breathing repeatedly pauses while you sleep, can worsen symptoms of asthma and COPD.

Wash your hands. Your hands pick up far more than the objects you reach for. They contact infected surfaces, and if you then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes, you introduce infection into your body.

Avoid bad air days. Stay aware of air quality alerts. High temperatures, few winds, pollution, and other airborne particles are particularly harmful for people with lung disease. Stay indoors as much as possible. If you do go out wear a mask unless it is too restrictive for your breathing.

Get an annual physical. It’s always a good idea to check in with your physician on a regular basis.

Change and rearrange your home. Dawn recommends changes like taking heavy bowls from overhead shelves in the kitchen and placing them on lower, easier-to-reach shelves. Lifting heavy objects from above your head taxes the muscles in your chest that help you breathe.

Create places throughout the house where you can sit and rest, and learn to pace yourself. Also, add some greenery to your home as well. Plants give off oxygen and take in harmful carbon dioxide.

Get vaccinated. Take your annual flu shot. As we age, our immune system is not as good at fighting off viruses. If a flu infection worsens, it can progress to pneumonia. Also, take the earliest opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Don’t give up. The last several months have been particularly difficult. It takes some work and consistently making good decisions about your health, but Dawn has witnessed the capacity of people to regain many of their abilities lost to lung disease.

Maintaining physical health is important at any age, but can get more difficult with aging. For more senior health tips, read our health and wellness blog!