Prevalence and underlying causes of dyspnoea in older people: a systematic review

Age Ageing. 2014 May;43(3):319-26. doi: 10.1093/ageing/afu001. Epub 2014 Jan 27.


Background: chronic dyspnoea is common in older people and is often of cardiac or pulmonary aetiology. Information on the exact prevalence and distribution of underlying causes is scarce. Our aim was to review the literature on prevalence and underlying causes of dyspnoea in the older population.

Methods: two MEDLINE searches were conducted: the first on studies on the prevalence of dyspnoea in older persons aged ≥65 years using the Medical Research Council (MRC) dyspnoea scale and the second on the underlying causes of dyspnoea in this population. Quality assessment was performed for all included studies. Random effects models based on the logit transformed prevalences were used to calculate pooled prevalence with 95% confidence intervals (95% CI).

Results: a total of 21 articles from 20 different populations reported the prevalence in the general older population with a median sample size of 600 (Interquartile range 262-1289). The pooled prevalence was 36% (95% CI: 27-47%) for an MRC of ≥2, 16% (95% CI: 12-21%) for an MRC of ≥3 and 4% (95% CI: 2-9%) for an MRC of ≥4. Prevalence rates were higher in women than in men. Only one article investigated the underlying causes of dyspnoea in older persons; in 70% of these patients, the dyspnoea was considered to be of cardiac or pulmonary origin.

Conclusion: dyspnoea is very common in older people, but estimates vary considerably between studies. Only one study describes the underlying causes.

Keywords: dyspnoea; elderly; older people; prevalence; systematic review.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Chronic Disease
  • Confidence Intervals
  • Dyspnea* / epidemiology
  • Dyspnea* / etiology
  • Dyspnea* / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Geriatric Assessment
  • Heart Diseases / complications*
  • Humans
  • Lung Diseases / complications*
  • Male
  • Prevalence