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Aging and your Lungs

The lungs have two main functions. One is to get oxygen from the air into the body. The other is to remove carbon dioxide from the body. Oxygen is needed by the body to work properly. Carbon dioxide is a waste gas the body produces when it uses oxygen.

During breathing, air enters and exits the lungs. When you breathe in (inhale), air flows through the airways into the lungs. The airways are made of stretchy tissue. Bands of muscle and other support tissue wrap each airway to help keep them open.

Air keeps flowing into the lungs until it fills tiny air sacs called alveoli. Blood circulates around these air sacs through tiny blood vessels. Oxygen crosses into the bloodstream at the place where the blood vessels and air sacs meet. This is also where carbon dioxide crosses from the bloodstream into the lungs to be breathed out (exhaled).

Aging Changes and Effects on Lungs 

Changes in bones and muscles of the chest and spine:

These changes in your bones and muscles result in a lower oxygen level in the blood that supplies your body. Also, less carbon dioxide is removed from your body. Symptoms such as tiredness and shortness of breath can result.

Changes in lung tissue:

These changes in lung tissue can allow air to get trapped in your lungs. Not enough oxygen enters the capillaries and less carbon dioxide is removed. This makes breathing hard.

Changes in the nervous system:

Changes in the immune system:

Common Problems for Older People

As a result of these changes, older persons are at increased risk of:

  • Lung infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis
  • Shortness of breath
  • Low oxygen level, which reduces the body's ability to fight diseases
  • Abnormal breathing patterns, resulting in problems such as  sleep apnea (episodes of stopped breathing during sleep)

Prevention of Aging on Lungs

To decrease the effects of aging on the lungs:

  • Do not smoke. Smoking harms the lungs and speeds up aging of the lungs.
  • Do physical exercise to improve lung function.
  • Be up and about. Lying in bed or sitting for long periods allows mucus to collect in the lungs. This puts you at risk of lung infections. This is especially true right after surgery or when you are ill.

As You Grow Older, You'll Have Other Changes, which Include:

  • In organs, tissues, and cells
  • In the bones, muscles, and joints
  • In the heart and blood vessels
  • In vital signs