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Effects of Aging on the Respiratory System

by Noah Lechtzin, MD, MHS

The effects of aging on the respiratory system are similar to those that occur in other organs: maximum function gradually declines. Age-related changes in the lungs include

  • Decreases in peak airflow and gas exchange

  • Decreases in measures of lung function such as vital capacity (the maximum amount of air that can be breathed out following a maximum inhalation)

  • Weakening of the respiratory muscles

  • Decline in the effectiveness of lung defense mechanisms

In healthy people, these age-related changes seldom lead to symptoms. These changes contribute somewhat to an older person's reduced ability to do vigorous exercise, especially intense aerobic exercise, such as running, biking, and mountain climbing. However, age-related decreases in heart function may be a more important cause of such limitations. Obesity also reduces lung function. Additionally, older people are at higher risk of developing pneumonia after bacterial or viral infections. Thus, vaccines for respiratory infections such as influenza and pneumococcal pneumonia are particularly important for older people (see Influenza (Flu) : Prevention and see Pneumococcal Infections : Prevention). Importantly, age-related changes in the lungs compound the effects of heart and lung diseases the person may have, especially those caused by the destructive effects of smoking.

Did You Know?

  • In healthy people, age-related reductions in lung function seldom lead to symptoms, but they can contribute to an older person's reduced ability to do vigorous exercise.

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