Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: an update on diagnosis and management issues in older adults

Drugs Aging. 2009;26(10):813-31. doi: 10.2165/11316760-000000000-00000.


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a debilitating disease of the elderly that causes significant morbidity and mortality. Despite being a treatable and preventable disease, the prevalence continues to rise because of the worldwide epidemic of smoking. COPD is associated with enormous healthcare costs. It has systemic effects, and common co-morbid conditions such as cardiovascular disease, muscle wasting and osteoporosis may all be linked through a common systemic inflammatory cascade. Depression, anxiety and malnutrition are also common in elderly COPD patients. These factors not only affect quality of life (QOL) but also compliance with therapy. Malnutrition is an independent predictor of mortality and poor outcome. Spirometry is essential for the diagnosis of COPD, but the criteria defining airflow limitation are not clear cut for elderly patients and could result in over-diagnosis. However, older patients perceive their symptoms differently, and COPD could also be under-diagnosed in this population. Acute exacerbations result in worsening symptoms that necessitate additional treatment, and may cause a more rapid decline in lung function and QOL. The management of elderly patients with COPD should encompass a multidisciplinary approach. An evaluation of patients' nutritional status and mental health should be undertaken, in addition to assessing their lung function and functional impairment. Significant underlying co-morbidities should be evaluated and treated to derive the maximal benefit of therapy. Specific therapy for COPD should start with cessation of exposure to the most important risk factor, tobacco smoke. Smoking cessation rates in the elderly have not declined, and this may reflect an underlying reluctance by physicians to counsel and offer smoking cessation therapies to the elderly. Unlike oxygen therapy in hypoxaemic patients, bronchodilators and corticosteroids do not decrease mortality in COPD patients and they are primarily directed towards symptom relief. However, they do have a positive effect on QOL and exacerbation rates. The choice of delivery devices for inhaled medications is important in the elderly, and patients' inhaler technique and manual dexterity should be frequently assessed. Pulmonary rehabilitation and nutritional supplementation are other important components of care. End-of-life issues should be adequately addressed in the elderly with COPD, and an approach integrating curative and palliative interventions is recommended.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Anxiety / complications
  • Comorbidity
  • Depression / complications
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / complications
  • Inflammation / epidemiology
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / complications
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / diagnosis*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / epidemiology
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / therapy*
  • Risk Factors