The onset of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can arise either from failure to attain the normal spirometric plateau or from an accelerated decline in lung function. Despite reports from numerous big cohorts, no single adult life factor, including smoking, accounts for this accelerated decline. By contrast, five childhood risk factors (maternal and paternal asthma, maternal smoking, childhood asthma and respiratory infections) are strongly associated with an accelerated rate of lung function decline and COPD. Among adverse effects on lung development are transgenerational (grandmaternal smoking), antenatal (exposure to tobacco and pollution), and early childhood (exposure to tobacco and pollution including pesticides) factors. Antenatal adverse events can operate by causing structural changes in the developing lung, causing low birth weight and prematurity and altered immunological responses. Also important are mode of delivery, early microbiological exposures, and multiple early atopic sensitizations. Early bronchial hyperresponsiveness, before any evidence of airway inflammation, is associated with adverse respiratory outcomes. Overlapping cohort studies established that spirometry tracks from the preschool years to late middle age, and those with COPD in the sixth decade already had the worst spirometry at age 10 years. Alveolar development is now believed to continue throughout somatic growth and is adversely impacted by early tobacco smoke exposure. Genetic factors are also important, with genes important in lung development and early wheezing also being implicated in COPD. The inescapable conclusion is that the roots of COPD are in early life, and COPD is a disease of childhood adverse factors interacting with genetic factors.
Keywords: asthma; atopy; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; microbiome; nicotine.