Background: The identification of smoking-related lung disease in current and former smokers with normal FEV1 is complex, leading to debate regarding using a ratio of forced expiratory volume in 1 s to forced vital capacity (FEV1/FVC) of less than 0.70 versus the predicted lower limit of normal (LLN) for diagnosis of airflow obstruction. We hypothesized that the discordant group of ever-smokers with FEV1/FVC between the LLN and 0.70 is heterogeneous, and aimed to characterize the burden of smoking-related lung disease in this group.
Methods: We compared spirometry, chest CT characteristics, and symptoms between 161 ever-smokers in the discordant group and 940 ever-smokers and 190 never-smokers with normal FEV1 and FEV1/FVC > 0.70 in the SPIROMICS cohort. We also estimated sensitivity and specificity for diagnosing objective radiographic evidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) using different FEV1/FVC criteria thresholds.
Results: The discordant group had more CT defined emphysema and non-emphysematous gas trapping, lower post-bronchodilator FEV1 and FEF25-75, and higher respiratory medication use compared with the other two groups. Within the discordant group, 44% had radiographic CT evidence of either emphysema or non-emphysematous gas trapping; an FEV1/FVC threshold of 0.70 has greater sensitivity but lower specificity compared with LLN for identifying individuals with CT abnormality.
Conclusions: Ever-smokers with normal FEV1 and FEV1/FVC < 0.70 but > LLN are a heterogeneous group that includes significant numbers of individuals with and without radiographic evidence of smoking-related lung disease. These findings emphasize the limitations of diagnosing COPD based on spirometric criteria alone.
Keywords: Airway obstruction; Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; Emphysema; Forced expiratory volume; Maximal Midexpiratory flow rate; Pulmonary function tests; Spirometry.