COPD Awareness Returns To 2008 Levels, According To New NIH Survey

Awareness of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has been rising gradually in recent years, but the results of a national survey show current awareness levels have returned to those of 2008. The survey was released today by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health.

Sixty-five percent of adults reported that they have heard of COPD, compared to 71% in 2011. Among people most at risk for COPD, awareness stood at 74% for current smokers and 73% for former smokers; in 2011 these values were 78% and 76%, respectively.

COPD, which in 2010 surpassed stroke to become the third leading cause of death in the United States, is a serious and progressive lung disease that makes breathing difficult and can affect quality of life. COPD, includes conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and has been diagnosed in an estimated 12 million men and women in the United States, with just as many more likely remaining undiagnosed.

“Although these current numbers do not indicate a trend, we are concerned that the awareness level has not continued to increase. We plan to use this as an opportunity to mobilize and re-energize our efforts.” said James P. Kiley, Ph.D., director of the NHLBI Division of Lung Diseases. “COPD is the only major chronic disease where deaths are not decreasing, which makes it critical for people to understand whether they are at risk for it and recognize its symptoms as early as possible. COPD can be treated – but the challenge is that more than 1 in 3 Americans do not know what it is or what its health outcomes are.”

Kiley noted that the NHLBI plans to engage more with COPD patients, caregivers, and members of advocacy organizations including the American Lung Association and COPD Foundation, and medical societies like the American Thoracic Society. The NHLBI will also work with partners through the COPD Learn More Breathe Better campaign to expand mobilization of local COPD coalitions and state COPD task forces to enhance message penetration and activation at the community level.

In 2007, the NHLBI along with leading professional societies, health organizations, and advocacy groups, launched the COPD Learn More Breathe Better campaign to raise public awareness and understanding of COPD. The campaign encourages people at risk for COPD to get a simple diagnostic breathing test and talk to their health care provider about selection of treatment options; the campaign also encourages those diagnosed with COPD to take personal ownership of and responsibility for their overall care and treatment plans.

COPD develops slowly, and its symptoms — which can include shortness of breath, chronic coughing or wheezing, production of excess sputum, or a feeling of being unable to take a deep breath-are often mistaken for a consequence of aging or being out of shape. Therefore, many people dismiss their symptoms early on and delay seeking diagnosis and treatment until the disease is in its late stages.

According to the results of a parallel survey of health care providers, 48% of primary care physicians say that one of the biggest barriers to diagnosing COPD is that patients do not fully report these kinds of symptoms.

“Early diagnosis and treatment can go a long way toward improving quality of life for those with COPD, but the first step to breathing better is reporting symptoms to a health care provider,” said Kiley. “That’s why it is so vital that we do more to not only raise awareness of COPD, but also increase public understanding of how COPD can affect daily life.”

COPD most often occurs in people age 40 and older with a history of smoking. However, as many as 1 in 6 people with COPD have never smoked. COPD also can occur in people with a genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency or through long-term exposure to substances that can irritate the lungs, such as dust or fumes.

COPD is diagnosed with a simple test called spirometry, which can be conducted in a doctor’s office. The test involves breathing out as hard and fast as possible into a tube connected to a machine that measures lung function.

The NHLBI analyzed the results of the annual HealthStyles and DocStyles surveys of public health attitudes, knowledge, practices, and lifestyle habits of consumers and health care professionals, conducted each year by Porter Novelli, the communications contractor for the NHLBI’s COPD Learn More Breathe Better campaign. The latest survey results represent a sample of 4,703 consumers with a margin of error of 1.4 percentage points and 1,000 physicians with a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. Both surveys were conducted in summer 2012.

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