Importance: According to numerous current guidelines, the diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) requires a ratio of the forced expiratory volume in the first second to the forced vital capacity (FEV1:FVC) of less than 0.70, yet this fixed threshold is based on expert opinion and remains controversial.
Objective: To determine the discriminative accuracy of various FEV1:FVC fixed thresholds for predicting COPD-related hospitalization and mortality.
Design, setting, and participants: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Pooled Cohorts Study harmonized and pooled data from 4 US general population-based cohorts (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study; Cardiovascular Health Study; Health, Aging, and Body Composition Study; and Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis). Participants aged 45 to 102 years were enrolled from 1987 to 2000 and received follow-up longitudinally through 2016.
Exposures: Presence of airflow obstruction, which was defined by a baseline FEV1:FVC less than a range of fixed thresholds (0.75 to 0.65) or less than the lower limit of normal as defined by Global Lung Initiative reference equations (LLN).
Main outcomes and measures: The primary outcome was a composite of COPD hospitalization and COPD-related mortality, defined by adjudication or administrative criteria. The optimal fixed FEV1:FVC threshold was defined by the best discrimination for these COPD-related events as indexed using the Harrell C statistic from unadjusted Cox proportional hazards models. Differences in C statistics were compared with respect to less than 0.70 and less than LLN thresholds using a nonparametric approach.
Results: Among 24 207 adults in the pooled cohort (mean [SD] age at enrollment, 63 [10.5] years; 12 990 [54%] women; 16 794 [69%] non-Hispanic white; 15 181 [63%] ever smokers), complete follow-up was available for 11 077 (77%) at 15 years. During a median follow-up of 15 years, 3925 participants experienced COPD-related events over 340 757 person-years of follow-up (incidence density rate, 11.5 per 1000 person-years), including 3563 COPD-related hospitalizations and 447 COPD-related deaths. With respect to discrimination of COPD-related events, the optimal fixed threshold (0.71; C statistic for optimal fixed threshold, 0.696) was not significantly different from the 0.70 threshold (difference, 0.001 [95% CI, -0.002 to 0.004]) but was more accurate than the LLN threshold (difference, 0.034 [95% CI, 0.028 to 0.041]). The 0.70 threshold provided optimal discrimination in the subgroup analysis of ever smokers and in adjusted models.
Conclusions and relevance: Defining airflow obstruction as FEV1:FVC less than 0.70 provided discrimination of COPD-related hospitalization and mortality that was not significantly different or was more accurate than other fixed thresholds and the LLN. These results support the use of FEV1:FVC less than 0.70 to identify individuals at risk of clinically significant COPD.