Today, more women than men have COPD, and women account for more than half of the deaths from this disease. The trend started in the 1960s, when marketing campaigns like the famous Virginia Slims "You've come a long way, baby" ad made smoking socially acceptable for women. They embraced this habit by the millions.
"Given the lag time in lung disease, we're probably just starting to see the apogee of the trends in cigarette smoking," says Dr. Dawn DeMeo, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and pulmonologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
COPD is a lung condition that includes both emphysema (damage to the air sacs of the lungs) and chronic bronchitis (blockage from too much mucus in the airways). People with COPD often have a chronic cough and difficulty breathing.
Smoking is the leading cause of COPD in the Western world in men and women. But researchers are discovering that women's lungs may be even more vulnerable than men's to the toxic effects of smoke. For every cigarette smoked, women seem to develop more severe lung disease at an earlier age, says Dr. DeMeo.
At first, researchers thought anatomy was to blame: women have smaller lungs, meaning there is less surface area over which to distribute cigarette smoke. At higher concentrations, the toxins in cigarette smoke can cause greater damage.
Researchers are now looking at other possible factors. For example, the hormone estrogen may change the way a woman's body breaks down harmful compounds in cigarette smoke. "We're trying to tackle this from all different angles. Is it anatomy, is it hormones, or is it some different physiology? No one really knows yet," Dr. DeMeo says.
Read the full-length article: "COPD: Could you be at risk?"
Also in the June 2014 Harvard Women's Health Watch:
Harvard Women's Health Watch is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $20 per year. Subscribe at www.health.harvard.edu/
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