New Evidence for Age-Related Lung Function Decline in Women

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Carrie Lam, MD; Jeremy Lam, MD

picture of woman showing declining lung function and unhealthy lungsAs you get older, you may experience a number of illnesses and diseases related to your age. As the average life span expands, an unfortunate side effect is the fact that many older people experience a range of unpleasant medical conditions and declining health. A recent study has even suggested that the hormonal changes that occur with menopause may be responsible for a marked decline in lung function that occurs as some women get older. That’s why it’s important to take steps to improve and protect your lung health, so you can avoid the potentially devastating effects of this type of decline.

Age-Related Lung Function Decline

A recent study has suggested that women need to be more aware of the health of their lungs as they age because of changes brought about by menopause. The study analyzed the health of 1,438 women over more than twenty years, from the age of 25 to 48. At the end of the study period, these women were menopausal or postmenopausal. The analysis of the changes that occurred throughout and after menopause was astounding, particularly because this was the first long-term study of lung function and menopause.

The researchers found that the participants’ lung function declined sharply during and after menopause. This was tested by examining forced vital capacity (FVC) and forced expiratory volume (FEV1). The first is a measure of lung size and the second of how strongly air can be exhaled in a second, showing the strength of the lungs. The decline in the results of both of these tests was more than normal aging processes would suggest. In fact, the FVC results were similar to that of smokers with a 20-a-day habit for over 10 years. The FEV1 decline was similar to that of people who smoke 20 cigarettes a day for 2 years.

Potential Causes of Decline

There is no definitive explanation for the decline noticed in this study, though the researchers had several ideas about what may have caused it. According to them, one possible cause could be the hormonal changes that occur during menopause. These are often linked with chronic inflammation, which is also associated with lung function decline. These same hormonal changes might also cause osteoporosis in the vertebrae, limiting the amount of air the participants could breathe in, and resulting in decreased lung function.

doctor listening to patient's lung functionThese possible causes are important because they implicate hormonal changes and imbalances as the most likely cause of lung function decline. This obviously suggests that women need to be more aware of their hormonal health as they age. However, it also has implications for people who have disorders such as Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), which is strongly linked to hormonal imbalances.

What Is AFS?

Your adrenal glands are an important part of your body and of your stress response system. They secrete hormones that are essential both in daily functioning and in helping your body respond to stress. The adrenals are part of what’s called the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response, the system in your body that makes changes in response to stress. Stress is a normal experience, and can even be healthy in some situations. However, a constant feature of modern life seems to be ongoing stress that can last for years, if not decades. And the NEM stress response just isn’t designed to keep up with that kind of demand.

When you experience chronic stress, it can cause this system to break down, starting with the adrenal glands. When the adrenals become fatigued through overwork, it causes a variety of troubling symptoms including weight gain, fatigue, brain fog, depression, anxiety, and hormonal imbalances. This disease sets in slowly, and can almost be unnoticeable at first because your body is used to being constantly stressed and run down. However, AFS is far more serious than simple overwork and if left unchecked will get worse over time or lead to a complete breakdown of numerous systems and circuits in the body.

Your Hormones and AFS

Hormonal imbalances, PMS, and menstrual irregularities usually start to surface during stage two of AFS as the hormonal circuit starts to become dysregulated. This is often linked to dysfunctions in the OAT axis, which involves the Ovarian, Adrenal, and Thyroid glands (OAT). Estrogen dominance is often the result of this dysregulation, which can cause a variety of symptoms related to the reproductive system. These symptoms typically include irregular menstruation, PMS, lumpy breasts, endometriosis, and other pre-menopausal symptoms. At this stage, hormone replacement therapy is ineffective. The path to recovery must focus on the adrenal fatigue first rather than trying to correct the hormonal imbalance directly.

tired woman with declining lung functionThis stage of AFS could have some very negative effects on the health of your lungs. It’s strongly associated with chronic inflammation on its own as well as hormonal changes which could cause or worsen inflammation. According to the recent study on lung function decline, this is one of the most likely causes of decreased lung health. But AFS is also strongly associated with the same type of hormonal imbalances that causes osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. This makes it even more likely that people with AFS will also suffer from diminished lung capacity and health as their condition progresses.

Final Thoughts

If you want to live a happy and healthy life, preserving and protecting your lung function is vital. If you’re a woman, this task becomes more difficult as you age due to hormonal changes that can do as much damage to your lung health as heavy smoking. This is also important if you suffer from disorders such as AFS, which can affect the hormonal balance in your body and perhaps even bring on this kind of decline earlier than expected. So if you have AFS, it’s important that you become more aware of your hormones and any imbalances that could damage your overall well-being and health.

© Copyright 2019 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

A recent study has shown that lung function declines sharply after menopause. The extent of the decline was roughly equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day over an extended period of time. This finding makes it extremely important that women safeguard their lung health as they age.

lung function