You may have never smoked a day in your life, but that doesn’t mean you’re not at risk for COPD. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a debilitating lung deficiency that encompasses both chronic bronchitis and emphysema, and it’s the third leading cause of death worldwide. There are more than 11 million Americans diagnosed with COPD, with millions more likely suffering while undiagnosed.
No one is immune to COPD — not even well-known celebrities, such as actor/director Leonard Nimoy, best known for his portrayal of Spock in the Star Trek franchise. Nimoy lost his battle with COPD on February 27, 2015 and has recently become the subject of an upcoming documentary that aims to shed light on this complex lung disorder, as well as chronicling Nimoy’s fight and urging others to quit smoking to help lessen risk.
While it’s true that about nine out of ten COPD patients are current or former smokers, non-smokers can develop the condition as well. Below you can learn about the various risk factors for COPD, what treatments are being developed, and what non-smokers can do to battle against this disease.
COPD and Non-Smokers
It’s often difficult to determine the cause of COPD in non-smokers, but there are many well-understood risk factors to be aware of. In some cases, COPD is caused by exposure to noxious chemicals or fumes in the workplace, particularly in the developing world. Women are believed to be at a greater risk of contracting COPD, largely due to having smaller airways than men. Like with many types of disease, age is also a risk factor. Almost all patients of COPD will show symptoms by the age of 40.
Researchers have found that our genetic disposition also plays an important role. The leading genetic risk factor for COPD is alpha-1 antitrypsin (ATT) deficiency. ATT is a protein made by the liver to protect the lungs. With too little ATT in the bloodstream, you have a much greater risk for both lung and liver disease. The significance of the genetic component of COPD must not be underestimated — many smokers without genetic disposition will never develop COPD, while many people who are ATT deficient will.
Promising New Treatments
Given the severity of the disease, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that researchers are working tirelessly to develop new treatments. One of the most promising developments in COPD treatment is a new respiratory assistive system that has recently been given priority status by the FDA, the Hemolung Respiratory Assist System (RAS) developed by ALung technologies.
RAS promises to provide better treatment and a higher quality of life for people who suffer from COPD by enabling patients to reduce the carbon dioxide levels in their blood without risky and uncomfortable intubation or ventilation systems. Although RAS only promises treatment and not a cure, it is nevertheless a welcome development for the millions of people who might use the device to lead longer and more comfortable lives.
Non-Smokers Beating COPD
Unfortunately, there is no difference in the COPD symptoms of non-smokers and smokers, but that’s not to say that there are no benefits of not smoking. One substantial advantage that non-smokers have is that they don’t need to worry about quitting smoking, which means they can focus their efforts entirely on leading a healthy lifestyle. Although there is no cure for COPD, with adequate sleep, exercise, and nutrition, it’s often possible to reduce the severity of your symptoms.