COPD Life Expectancy

If you have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or are caring for someone who has, then you may be concerned about life expectancy.
COPD is a chronic and progressive lung disease with no cure. However, there are treatments that can help slow its progression and improve quality of life. As with other medical conditions, experts use various methods to predict how long you might live with COPD.

How is COPD life expectancy determined?

The life expectancy of COPD patients varies considerably. There are multiple factors involved, such as whether you have smoked during your life and, if so, how long for, your individual symptoms, your age, your health, and how you rank in the GOLD system.

The Global Initiative on Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) system is a form of classification used by doctors to assess the severity of COPD. The system uses a forced expiratory volume (FEV1) test to see how much air you can forcefully exhale in one second after blowing into a spirometer.

The four stages of COPD are:

  • GOLD 1: FEV1 less than or equal to 80% predicted – mild
  • GOLD 2: FEV1 50-80% predicted – moderate
  • GOLD 3: FEV1 20-50% predicted – severe
  • GOLD 4: FEV1 less than 30% predicted – very severe.

The system also considers factors such as your specific breathing problems and the number of flare-ups you tend to have. The higher your score on the GOLD scale, the lower your COPD life expectancy is likely to be.

What is the COPD BODE scale?

Another scale that’s also often used in conjunction with GOLD is the BODE scale. BODE stands for body mass index, airflow obstruction, dyspnea (breathlessness), and exercise capacity. This scale considers how your COPD affects your life and scores on various factors, including:

  • BMI (body mass index) – as having COPD can cause problems with weight management
  • Breathing difficulty level – this shows how much trouble you have with your breathing
  • Exercise capacity – a measure of how far you’re able to walk in six minutes, which shows how much physical activity you can manage
  • Airflow obstruction – the BODE scale also takes into account the results from FEV1 and other pulmonary function tests to assess how much your airflow is obstructed.

When all the factors have been taken into consideration, you end up with a BODE score of between 0 and 10. Those scoring 10 have the worst symptoms and are likely to have a shorter life expectancy.
Assessment tools for COPD are useful and can help give some indication of likely life expectancy, but ultimately, it’s important to remember that they’re only an estimate.

Is COPD considered a terminal illness?

COPD is regarded as being a chronic progressive disease rather than a terminal illness. Although there isn’t a cure, it can be successfully managed especially if it’s recognized early on.

Studies have shown that if a diagnosis of COPD is made in its early stages and medical treatments and lifestyle changes are implemented, the rate of lung function decrease can be reduced. For example, one study found that stopping smoking after a COPD diagnosis delayed the progression of COPD at all stages, with earlier actions having the most impact on delaying the progression of the disease.

Can you live 10 or 20 years with COPD?

The exact length of time you can live with COPD depends on your age, health, and symptoms. If your COPD is diagnosed early, mild, and remains well managed and controlled, you may well be able to live for 10 or even 20 years post-diagnosis. One study, for example, found that there was no reduction in life expectancy for people who were diagnosed with mild stage COPD, or GOLD stage 1.

This is especially so if you don’t smoke, as other research has found that life expectancy with COPD is reduced further for past and current smokers.

For those with severe stage COPD, the average loss of life expectancy is about eight to nine years.

What can help improve COPD life expectancy?

If you are a smoker and have COPD, quitting smoking can have a positive effect on your life expectancy. Studies suggest that those with GOLD stage 1 or 2 (mild and moderate) COPD who smoke lose a few years of life expectancy at the age of 65. For those with stages 3 or 4 (severe and very severe) COPD, they lose from six to nine years of life expectancy due to smoking. This is in addition to the four years of life lost by anyone who smokes.

If you’ve never smoked, you can help yourself by ensuring your symptoms are well managed and that you have regular check-ups. Routine blood checks can help monitor inflammation and may help to pick up on potential issues before they worsen.

Simple lifestyle changes such as losing weight, eating healthily, and exercising safely, when possible, can also help you to maintain a good quality of life.

For those with severe COPD, treatments such as oxygen therapy, lung volume reduction surgery and lung transplants may also help to increase life expectancy.

How do most COPD patients die?

With COPD, everyone’s circumstances and health are individual and unique and there is no one way to say how patients may die.
Some research has found that for people with mild COPD, the causes of death are often cardiovascular disease.

In cases of severe COPD, research has shown that major causes of death include heart failure, respiratory failure, pulmonary infection, pulmonary embolism, cardiac arrhythmia, and lung cancer.

While it’s good to remain positive and not focus on dying, if your condition declines and becomes very severe, it’s likely that palliative and end of life care will be mentioned. Discussing this with your medical practitioner can help you make decisions and address physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. Palliative care is designed to be both patient and family-centered and can help prevent and relieve suffering.

At GAAPP, we believe patients deserve to be empowered and live freely without their symptoms interfering with their lives. Find out more about our Patient Charter here.


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