Characteristics of asthma among elderly adults in a sample of the general population

Chest. 1991 Oct;100(4):935-42. doi: 10.1378/chest.100.4.935.


This article describes the characteristics and course of asthma among subjects who were older than 65 years at the time of enrollment in a longitudinal study of a general population sample. It was present in 3.8 percent of men and 7.1 percent of women. An additional 4.1 percent of men reported having "asthma," but they also had seen a physician for "emphysema" and had smoked significantly; their "asthma" diagnosis is regarded as highly questionable. They did not show the elevated rate of allergy skin test reactivity of high serum IgE levels that were characteristic of other asthmatics. Many of the elderly asthmatics (mean age, 72 years) had severe disease with marked ventilatory impairment. There was a close relationship between the severity of wheezing complaints and impairment of the FEV1. Of the 46 patients, 48 percent reported an onset before age 40 years. There was no relationship between severity and age of onset or duration of disease. A second diagnosis of "chronic bronchitis" was reported by 46 percent of the asthmatics, but this did not delineate a distinctive group with late-onset, smoking-related disease. Death rates in the asthmatics tended to be higher than in nonasthmatics (odds ratio, 1.9; CI, 0.998 to 3.70, after stratifying by sex). Over a mean follow-up of 7.44 years, most symptoms as well as the FEV1 remained relatively stable. Chronic productive cough did tend to remit (p less than 0.01), but this was noted in the nonasthmatics as well. We estimate that no more than 19 percent of the asthmatics went into complete remission during follow-up. Most of these had mild initial symptoms; there were no remissions in subjects with severe disease at the time of entry. We concluded that asthma in the elderly is not a rare disease and may be associated with severe symptoms and chronic airways obstruction. If severe, it rarely goes into complete remission but tends to remain a severe, disabling disorder.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Arizona / epidemiology
  • Asthma / diagnosis
  • Asthma / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Forced Expiratory Volume / physiology
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulin E / analysis
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Respiratory Sounds
  • Sampling Studies
  • Skin Tests
  • Smoking / epidemiology


  • Immunoglobulin E