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Aging Changes In The Lungs

  • Lungs and bronchial tree

Definition

Normal changes in the lungs occur as an individual ages.

What is the information for this topic?

The main job of the lungs is to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide. As a person inhales, the air travels through a series of airways that branch out into smaller and smaller passages. These airways end at small sacs called alveoli. Tiny blood vessels that surround the alveoli take in the oxygen and exchange it for carbon dioxide.
The lungs are constantly exposed to particles in the air, some of which can be damaging. These include smoke, dust, pollen, and bacteria. The lungs help protect the body from many of these particles by filtering them out before they go any further into the body.
In order to take in and expel large amounts of air, the lungs must stay elastic or able to stretch easily. As a person ages, the lungs become stiffer and less elastic. This can limit the ability of the lungs to expand and take in as much air as they did in younger days. There are also fewer alveoli and tiny blood vessels around the lungs, making air exchange more difficult.
Other changes that occur with aging include:
  • a cough reflex that is slower and less forceful
  • a decrease in the number of cilia, the protective hairs that line the airway
  • an increase in the amount of mucus produced, which can block the airways
  • increased risk of infections, such as flu, pneumonia, and acute bronchitis
  • increased risk for lung cancer
  • limited expansion of the lungs due to bone changes in the spine
  • weakening of the muscles involved in breathing
A person can help keep his or her lungs healthy and lessen the effects of aging by:
  • avoiding exposure to others with colds or signs of respiratory infection
  • avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke
  • avoiding exposure to asbestos, excessive dust and other material potentially damaging the the lungs
  • engaging in regular aerobic exercise, such as walking, running, or swimming at least 3 times per week for 30 minutes
  • avoiding severe obesity, which can limit respiratory function
  • following the healthcare professional's recommendations for pneumonia vaccine and flu shots
  • seeking medical care early for signs of respiratory infection

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