Asthma in Seniors

Tamera Jackson by Tamera Jackson | Licensed since 2007
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This article was updated on: 09/15/2018

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Asthma isn’t just a disease for young people. According to an article published by the National Institutes of Health, asthma affects about 10% of seniors age 65 and over, and it has the highest mortality rate in those over age 55. In fact, seniors with late onset asthma generally have a more severe form of the disease, with fewer symptom free days, than those who develop the disease at an earlier age.

Here’s what you should know about asthma in seniors and how to help your loved one manage the disease.

What is asthma?

According to the Mayo Clinic, asthma is a condition that causes your airways to narrow and swell, making it difficult to breathe comfortably. Asthma attacks may cause coughing and wheezing, and in some cases, may even become life threatening.

There are different asthma triggers; some seniors have flare-ups after exercise, known as exercise-induced asthma. In others, allergies may trigger attacks. Cold air, pollutants such as smoke or chemical fumes, and even emotional stress can bring on or worsen an asthma attack.

There is no known cure for asthma, but there are different medications that can reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks.

What are the risks with asthma in seniors?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests that normal aging changes in the bones, especially the rib cage, can put aging lungs at a disadvantage during an asthma attack. The small airways collapse and there is less air volume in the lungs.

In addition, diagnosing asthma can be a challenge, in part because seniors may experience mild shortness of breath as just a natural part of aging and not a symptom of asthma or other lung disease. A study reported by the NIH suggests that as many as 50% of asthma cases go undiagnosed in seniors.

Finally, treating asthma in seniors presents its own challenges, because side effects from commonly prescribed medications may be more severe in older people, according to the NIH. In addition, many seniors take multiple medications for other conditions, increasing the likelihood of drug interactions. It doesn’t help that prescription drugs often used by seniors, such as beta blockers and anti-inflammatory medications, are also known to trigger asthma attacks, according to the NIH.

How can seniors manage their asthma?

The Mayo Clinic stresses the importance of working with your health care provider to develop an asthma action plan and to follow it carefully. The action plan includes things such as medications to prevent an attack and steps to take during an attack to prevent complications. Make sure seniors understand all the instructions in the asthma plan.

In addition, the following steps are helpful for seniors with asthma, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Be sure your loved one is vaccinated against pneumonia and the flu each year.
  • Know what triggers an asthma attack and help seniors avoid those triggers.
  • Recognize early warning signs that an attack is imminent. These may be wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath, for example. Monitor breathing at home with a home peak flow meter; lung function may decrease before an asthma attack and before other symptoms develop.
  • If your loved one is using the quick relief inhaler more often, this may be a sign that the asthma action plan isn’t working and may need to be revised. See a doctor if you notice your loved one is increasing his inhaler use.

The NIH notes that medication non-adherence can be a problem among seniors, and those who aren’t taking their medications properly have worse symptoms and more severe attacks, which may lead to emergency room visits or hospital admissions. Encourage your loved one to carefully follow his or her medication schedule. If there is a problem with a particular medication, whether an unpleasant side effect or a problem with self-administration, see your doctor to discuss alternate therapies.

Need more information about Medicare coverage for seniors with asthma?

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