COPD and age: Onset, life expectancy, and more

COPD is a collection of chronic lung disorders that usually develop after years of lung damage. Age does appear to be a factor with COPD because of this, and older people may be more at risk than those who are younger.

Diagnosing COPD early is critical because treatment focuses on slowing the progression of the disease. Many risk factors are preventable and can delay the onset.

What is the typical age of onset for COPD?

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, COPD most often occurs in people more than 40 years of age who smoke or have done so earlier in life.

Other risk factors, such as long-term exposure to chemicals, may also play a role.

COPD typically builds up over time, and so the longer someone exposes themselves to potential lung damage, the more likely it is that they might develop COPD.

The lungs of people who are younger may recover from potential irritants faster than those of people who are older. Also, lung damage may not be enough to cause symptoms, as COPD typically takes years to produce noticeable signs.

COPD in younger people

The progressive nature of COPD may make it less likely for a young person to develop it, but it is still possible.

Risk factors may not have built up enough to cause COPD, but people in high-risk groups, such as those who smoke heavily or who work in polluted environments, should still be aware of the risks they could be exposing themselves to and take steps to avoid them.

Genetic factors

A genetic condition called AAT (alpha-1 antitrypsin) deficiency increases the risk of developing COPD at any age. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, up to 100,000 people in the U.S. may have AAT deficiency.

AAT deficiency makes it difficult for the body to respond to damage in the lungs, which could lead to people with the deficiency developing COPD faster than others.

In these cases, people may have never been smokers or had exposure to harmful chemicals and pollutants, but they will still be at high risk for COPD.

COPD may progress differently in each case, but there may be some general symptoms people experience before their diagnosis, and as the disease progresses.

How fast symptoms develop varies, depending on factors that include age, treatment a person receives, and the severity of the condition.

Early symptoms of COPD may include:

  • shortness of breath
  • difficulty breathing
  • chest pain or tightness
  • trouble exercising or doing simple movements due to a lack of breath
  • frequent cough, often producing a lot of mucus or sputum
  • wheezing
  • getting respiratory infections more often or easier than others
  • general lack of energy

People experiencing any of these symptoms should talk to a doctor for a diagnosis.

A correct diagnosis is important, as these symptoms may appear similar to other disorders, such as asthma. Some people may have both asthma and COPD, which can result in further complications.

Symptoms can become more disabling as COPD progresses. A person may not be able to move much without losing their breath and may have to go to the hospital regularly because of their symptoms.

COPD may develop in people who have never smoked or inhaled secondhand smoke.

Other sources of pollution may contribute to developing COPD at any age, including:

  • fumes from vehicles, especially in densely populated areas
  • chemicals from a factory or industrial job
  • dust
  • wood particles
  • metal particles or fumes from welding

Many people expose themselves to pollutants in small amounts, but it typically takes more extended exposure for these pollutants to lead to COPD.

Extended exposure may occur in a person working for many years in a factory who regularly breathes in harmful fumes, for example.

People who are at higher risk than usual may wish to take additional steps to avoid pollutants.

Some people may choose to use air purifiers or HEPA air filters in their home or office. Taking measures to protect the nose and mouth when working in polluted environments may also help.


COPD may be more likely to appear in older people than in those who are younger. Age is not the only factor, however, and COPD is not a normal part of aging. COPD is the result of damage to the lungs over time.

Both younger and older people should take care to avoid potential risk factors, as damage builds up over time and increases the risk of developing COPD.

Treating COPD early is crucial, as treatment may help slow the progression of the disease or prevent complications from its symptoms. Many people who follow treatment plans may find they can manage their symptoms effectively.

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