How Growing Older Impacts Lung Health

Medically reviewed by Elaine K. Luo, MD on February 23, 2017Written by Colleen Story

idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis

It’s hard to deny that you’re getting older when you start to see fine lines around your eyes and gray hairs on your head. A good moisturizing cream and a bottle of dye can make both of those issues less noticeable. Other changes in your body, though, may require a bit more attention.

Lung health, in particular, can change with age. It’s easy to imagine that you’ll always breathe easily, but as you get older, your lungs lose strength and become more vulnerable to disease. Age-related changes reduce elasticity in your lung tissues and decrease muscle mass within your diaphragm. These and other changes can leave you more vulnerable to breathing problems in your later years.

You can take steps to minimize the signs of aging in your lungs, so you can continue to breathe easily for the rest of your life. Here are seven ways that growing older may affect your lung health.

1. Your respiratory muscles weaken

Just like the other muscles in your body grow weaker with age, your respiratory muscles do the same. It may seem odd to think of muscles when you talk about your lungs, but actually several are involved. It takes muscle to pump those bellows!

Your diaphragm is the biggest and strongest of them all. A dome-shaped muscle, it sits below your lungs. When it contracts, the middle part moves down and the sides move up, creating a vacuum so the lungs can expand. When it relaxes, the middle part fills in, forcing air out.

The intercostal muscles are those smaller muscles that sit between your ribs. They help move your chest wall out and back to give your lungs room to expand and contract. These too, can weaken with age, so that they aren’t able to move as easily.

Other muscles that sometimes assist with breathing include those that help elevate the rib cage, and those that help push air out, such as your abdominal muscles.

2. Your rib cage stiffens

You may have started to feel stiffness in your knees and hips. Your bones aren’t as smooth and strong as they were when you were younger. Your rib cage goes through similar changes. Made of bone, it encloses your heart and lungs, providing protection. It also supports the entire chest, upper abdomen, and back.

The rib cage isn’t a fixed structure, though. It can expand and contract with your lungs. But like the other bones in your body, it can thin with age. Gradual bone loss causes your ribs to lose some of their bulk.

According to a study published in , your ribs also become calcified with age. That means they become more rigid and breakable. X-rays showed that calcification increased from 6 percent in a person’s 30s to 45 percent in their 90s.

Calcification creates a stiffer rib cage that doesn’t move as easily. As your intercostal muscles weaken and shrink, your rib cage may also become a little smaller. The ribs themselves can close in a bit on the lungs, making breathing more difficult.

3. Your bronchial tubes and air sacs lose elasticity

Inside your lungs are several little tubes called the bronchial tubes. As you inhale, the oxygen goes from your nose and mouth into the bronchial tubes in your lungs. Also called airways, these little tubes look like tree branches. At the end of all those little branches are air sacs, called alveoli.

These air sacs are where the “air exchange” — the process of oxygen going in and carbon dioxide going out — takes place. Inside the alveoli, oxygen enters your bloodstream, and carbon dioxide enters the airway to be exhaled.

With age, these little air sacs can lose their shape and elasticity. They become flatter, so there is less area inside them. They also become less agile, as your alveolar wall thickens. The bronchial tubes, meanwhile, increase in size as they become stretched and weakened. This can start to happen as early as the age of 40.

The breathing process becomes less efficient, and carbon dioxide can become trapped inside your air sacs. This can make exhalation more difficult. It may also mean that less oxygen gets into your bloodstream.

4. Your lungs lose their bounce

Your lungs themselves also change. Over time, they gradually become more flaccid or limp. They’re not as strong and stout as they used to be.

When you’re young, you can pull the skin on your face, and when you let go, it will bounce back to its original shape. That’s a measure of its elasticity. When you get older, your skin takes longer to bounce back. You will see it settle more slowly, because the structures underneath aren’t as tight as they were.

The same thing happens to your lungs. They don’t recoil as effectively as they did before. That means that other muscles must get involved to help you exhale. People who have emphysema, for example, have what is considered poor elastic recoil. They are able to inhale just fine, but have difficulty exhaling.

5. Exposure to toxins accumulates and resistance declines

According to a study published in the , as you age, your lungs are exposed over and over again to a number of environmental toxins. These may include air pollution, tobacco smoke, occupational dusts, and respiratory infections.

When you’re young, your lungs are good at resisting these toxins. As you age, however, the constant onslaught starts to wear the tissues down. Your immune system also weakens with age. That means that your lungs become more at risk from environmental exposures, and are more likely to develop inflammation and infections because of them.

6. Coughing nerves become less sensitive

One of your defenses against environmental toxins is your coughing reflex. You can cough up smoke, germs, and other particles and get rid of them.

As you age, the nerves that stimulate the coughing reflex become less sensitive. Cough strength, too, decreases because of weakened muscles. Your overall ability to clear toxins from your lungs becomes less effective. This, together with a less robust immune system, increases risk for infections.

7. Aging increases risk of inflammation

Inflammation is a sign that your immune system is doing its job. If you cut your finger, for example, it will turn red and swell up. That means your immune cells are killing off any bacterial invaders, and stimulating healing.

If the inflammation doesn’t stop once the area is healed, though, it can actually cause damage. Chronic inflammation is a concern throughout the body as your age. It’s believed to be a factor in most diseases, including heart disease, arthritis, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also a factor in most types of lung disease.

According to a 2013 study in the journal , aging contributes to a condition that goes by the term “inflamm-aging.” , for example, found that aging mice have elevated levels of inflammation in their lungs. The inflammation may start in response to a bacterium or virus, but then may continue even after the threat is gone. This can cause damage to the lungs, and may contribute to lung disease.

Tips to minimize the effects of aging lungs

All of the preceding changes are currently considered to be natural effects of aging. That doesn’t mean you have to accept fate, though. You can adopt healthy habits that reduce your risk of decreases in lung function. Some of these include:

  • committing to a routine of regular aerobic exercise, with the kind that gets you breathing harder providing a better workout for your lungs
  • stopping smoking
  • limiting your exposure to environmental pollution, secondhand smoke, dust, and other toxins
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • being sure to get pneumonia vaccine and flu shots as needed
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