Healthy Aging – Asthma and Aging

Is asthma a potential health problem for older Coloradoans? Although we typically think of asthma as a childhood condition, it actually can affect people at any age.

Sometimes younger people have asthma, but then it disappears as they get older and returns later in life. It may be a continuing condition that started at a younger age. There are many cases in which people develop asthma for the first time when they are older. The American Lung Association estimates that 25 million Americans have been diagnosed with asthma during their lifetime. Of that number, 2 million are people 65 and older.

Asthma is a breathing problem that causes inflammation, narrowing and obstruction of the airways. Essentially, asthma makes it more difficult for you to get air in and out of your lungs. The most common symptoms of asthma are a wheezing sound when you breathe; a cough that often comes back and may last more than a week (especially if the cough is worse at night); shortness of breath on an occasional or frequent basis; and chest tightness, particularly in cold weather or during exercise.

It may be difficult for a doctor to determine whether the problem is asthma or another lung disease. Other lung diseases that can cause problems similar to asthma are bronchitis and emphysema. Heart disease may also cause breathing problems – people can have heart and lung disease at the same time.

If you experience any of the symptoms, you need to have a complete medical checkup to discover if asthma is the problem.

The medical evidence is not clear regarding the causes of asthma. For many people, asthma may be inherited. Other factors may also be involved such as exposure to environmental pollutants and smoking. Some of the potential triggers of asthma are:

  • Tobacco smoke or smoke from a wood-burning stove or fireplace.
  • Allergies to pollen from trees, grasses, or weeds.
  • Allergies to dust or mold in the home.
  • Allergies to house dust mites, cockroaches, pets (especially cat saliva and animal dander).
  • Some medications.
  • Viruses.
  • Respiratory tract infections.
  • Environmental pollutants outside and inside the home.
  • Certain foods.

Most older Coloradoans with asthma can be treated successfully. This treatment may involve medication that you inhale from an inhaler or puffer, or it might consist of pills. Such medication reduces the swelling and inflammation in the air tubes. There are adapters that can make inhalers easier to use for those with arthritis.

The Allergy Foundation of America emphasizes that the successful treatment of asthma consists of a partnership between patient and doctor. You and your doctor develop a written asthma treatment plan that spells out what to do for asthma for when you are well and when you feel sick. The treatment plan identifies when you need to take medications and what the medications should do. It also specifies when you should call your doctor, especially if your asthma is getting worse. Your doctor may want you to measure your breathing by using a peak-flow-meter, which is a small plastic tool that you blow into.

It is important to follow an experienced doctor’s advice about your treatment, as some medications help prevent asthma attacks. You may need to take these medications all the time, even when you feel well. If your asthma gets worse, it is crucial to start treatment as soon as symptoms begin. Other medicines may be needed. Drugstore remedies may help a little, but remember that each individual needs his or her own asthma treatment plan.

Good treatment means regularly working with your doctor, not buying drugstore remedies that may be expensive and not directly treat the problem. Remember that asthma is a chronic disease like diabetes or a heart problem that most likely will not go away.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology suggests the following for avoiding asthma attacks.

  • Drink plenty of liquids.
  • Avoid foods with sulfites (such as shellfish).
  • Use a foam or cotton pillow and a plastic mattress cover, and avoid carpeting and drapes.
  • Use electronic air filters and cleaners, and use a filter mask while vacuuming and dusting.
  • Wear a scarf around your mouth and nose when outside in cold conditions.
  • Stay away from things that make your asthma worse.
  • Respond quickly to early asthma symptoms.
  • See your doctor regularly.

Treatment of asthma means recognizing asthma triggers, understanding your asthma treatment plan, knowing your asthma’s early warning signs and forming a partnership with your doctor. Older Coloradoans have a bigger challenge than younger people, as they are more likely to have other health problems such as high blood pressure. They may take medication for such problems that can affect asthma. Your doctor should know about all your health problems and medications (keep an up-to-date list). Another consideration is that some older people still smoke, which contributes to asthma and other lung problems.

For more information check the web sites of the American Lung Association (, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (, and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (

For more information on this topic, contact Colorado State University Cooperative Extension in your county. Additional articles on Healthy Aging are available from Colorado State University Cooperative Extension by going online at and clicking on Info Online then Consumer/Family, and scrolling to Healthy Aging.