Airflow limitation is underrecognized in well-functioning older people

J Am Geriatr Soc. 2001 Aug;49(8):1032-8. doi: 10.1046/j.1532-5415.2001.49205.x.


Objectives: Dyspnea is a common symptom in older people. A reduced forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) is associated with a higher mortality rate from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and increased admissions to hospitals. Underrecognized or undertreated airflow limitation may exacerbate the problem. The purpose of this study was to assess the prevalence and treatment of airflow limitation in a cohort of well-functioning older people.

Design: Cross-sectional study.

Setting: Baseline of a clinical-epidemiological study of incident functional limitation.

Participants: Participants attended the baseline examination of the Health, Aging, and Body Composition study, a prospective cohort study of 3,075 well-functioning subjects age 70 to 79.

Measurements: Demographic and clinical data were collected by interview. Spirometry was performed unless contraindicated and repeated until three acceptable sets of flow-volume loops were obtained. Patients on bronchodilator medications had spirometry performed posttherapy. Blinded readers assessed the flow-volume loops, and inadequate tests were omitted from analysis. Airflow limitation was defined as a reduced forced expiratory volume in 1 second/forced vital capacity (FEV1/FVC) as determined by age-, sex-, and race-normalized values. Severity of airflow limitation was defined by American Thoracic Society criteria.

Results: Two thousand four hundred eighty-five subjects (80.8%) had assessable spirometry and data on treatment and diagnosis (1,265 men, 1,220 women). The mean age was 73.6 years. Two hundred sixty-two subjects (10.5%) had airflow limitation; 43 (16.4%) of these never smoked. Only 37.4% of participants with airflow limitation and 55.6% of participants with severe airflow limitation reported a diagnosis of lung disease. Only 20.5% of subjects with at least moderate airflow limitation had used a bronchodilator in the previous 2 weeks.

Conclusion: Despite their good functional status, airflow limitation was present, and underrecognized, in a considerable proportion of our older population. The low bronchodilator use suggests a significant reservoir of untreated disease. Physicians caring for older people need to be more vigilant for both the presence, and the need for treatment, of airflow limitation.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Airway Obstruction / diagnosis*
  • Airway Obstruction / drug therapy
  • Airway Obstruction / epidemiology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Dyspnea / diagnosis*
  • Dyspnea / drug therapy
  • Dyspnea / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Geriatric Assessment*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pennsylvania / epidemiology
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Spirometry
  • Tennessee / epidemiology