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Lungs and Age: How Time Impacts the Respiratory System

Lungs and Age: How Time Impacts the Respiratory System

All of the cells in your body need oxygen to survive. Your lungs are what help bring oxygen into your body so it can enter the bloodstream and be distributed everywhere it’s needed. As you get older, there are some changes that impact your breathing. To understand how aging affects the respiratory system, you first need to know exactly how your lungs work.

How Lungs Work

Lungs are a major part of the respiratory system. That’s the group of cells and tissue that make breathing possible. There are a lot of parts included, like the nose, mouth, throat, bronchial tubes, cilia, alveoli… the list just goes on and on. 

We won’t dive into all of that. We’re just going to look specifically at the lungs.

Your lungs have two main jobs to do:

  1. Pull oxygen into the body
  2. Expel carbon dioxide from the body

So, how do they do that? Your lungs don’t actually have any muscle to do the job, but they do get help from a muscle called the diaphragm. It’s what separates your chest cavity from the abdominal cavity.

The diaphragm helps your lungs expand to pull in air and then contract to push out carbon dioxide. As you breathe in, your ribs also work with the lungs by supporting and moving with the lungs. They are what protect the lungs from harm.

Measuring Lung Capacity

According to the American Lung Association, your total lung capacity is about 6 liters worth of air! That will depend on your age and health. 

Spirometry is the type of test that’s used to test your lung function. It can test your total lung capacity and other things, like vital capacity. Vital capacity is the measure of the maximum amount of air you can force out of your lungs after you fully inhale.

All of these measurements are likely to reduce as you age even if you are healthy and aren’t a smoker.

How Aging Affects the Respiratory System

Your lungs hit maturity by age 20 or 25. Once you hit about 35, it’s normal to start having some decline in lung function due to age. It’s just a normal part of how aging affects the respiratory system. There are several things that factor into that gradual decline as you add on the years.

First, your diaphragm muscle can get weaker, which is one of the things that can cause shortness of breath with age. 

Your rib bones also become thinner and can change shape. Those changes can make it more difficult for your lungs to expand and contract. 

In addition, there are changes to lung tissue and your alveoli. Alveoli are small sacs in your lungs where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place. With age, those sacks can become misshapen and baggy. 

The lungs can become more prone to tissue damage, as well. This is caused by a decrease in sensitivity to nerves in your airway. Usually, when particles make their way into your lungs, your airway will trigger a coughing response to clear those particles. As you age and those nerves become less sensitive, the cough response isn’t triggered. The particles then build up and can cause damage to lung tissue.

All of these things and more can cause shortness of breath as you age. They also leave you at a higher risk of respiratory infections. Overall, it’s just a normal part of aging, but if you have a sudden change in your breathing you should immediately contact your doctor. That could indicate lung disease or another serious issue.

Senior woman doing breathing exercises to strengthen lungs.

Protecting Your Lungs

While a decline in lung function is normal as you get older, there are some things you can do to keep your lungs as healthy as possible. 

One of the biggest things to do is not smoking. Smoking is a major cause of lung cancer, emphysema, and other respiratory problems. Over time, smoking can destroy lung tissue and even cause cancer. 

Secondly, you should avoid indoor and outdoor air pollutants as much as possible. When you’re indoors, things like secondhand smoke and other chemicals can impact your lungs. Make sure your home is smoke-free and test the house for radon, and you’ll be off to a great start.

As for outdoors, it’s more difficult to take precautions. At the very least, try not to do outdoor exercises during days with bad air quality. Paying attention to air quality reports in your area can go a long way. Things like climate change and natural disasters can also have a big effect on your local air quality.

Lastly, regular checkups and prevention are key. Make sure you’re seeing your doctor often, even when you aren’t sick. Being proactive is critical to maintaining your health. In that same vein, taking steps to prevent infection, like getting your flu shot, will put you in good shape.

It’s All About Prevention

If you take care of your lungs, they will take care of you. The best thing you can do is keep them in good shape so your body gets all the oxygen it needs. 

Practice exercises like belly breathing or pursed lip breathing to make sure you’re getting the most out of each breath. Lead a healthy lifestyle to keep your lungs functioning in top shape. That includes regular exercise, eating right, and seeing your doctor often. With VIPcare, you’re encouraged to come in as often as you would like. It’s all about maintaining Better Health.