What's the fourth biggest killer in America? Over 51% of Americans don't know either

Published on May 11, 2004 at 7:52 AM · No Comments

More than half of Americans (51 percent) have never even heard of a disease that is the fourth leading killer in this country, according to results of a nationwide survey released today by the National Women’s Health Resource Center (NWHRC). Prevalence of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a lung disease generally associated with smoking, and often referred to as “smoker’s lung,” is rapidly rising – with women accounting for a major portion of the increase. The disease is expected to become the third leading cause of death in the United States by the year 2020.

Of the more than 1,500 Americans polled in the online survey, 500 were either regular or occasional smokers. Nearly three-fourths (72 percent) of those surveyed, including smokers, did not identify COPD as one of the top five deadly diseases. Ironically, many respondents incorrectly named diabetes and AIDS, other important health problems, as ranking among the top five killers. COPD is a debilitating and progressive condition that results in loss of lung function. Not only is it one of the few major diseases that has an increasing mortality rate, but it also causes a significant financial burden, costing the U.S. economy more than $32 billion in 2002 alone.

“COPD has increased dramatically – especially in women – yet awareness of the disease remains alarmingly low,” said Amy Niles, President and Chief Executive Officer, NWHRC. “Not only is the disease on the rise, but the face of COPD is changing. In 2000, for the first time, more women died from COPD than men.”

Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of those who participated in the survey incorrectly believe COPD causes more deaths in men than women. The mortality rate for COPD increased 148 % from 1979 to 2000, with women accounting for a major portion of the increase. In fact, in the last twenty years, the number of women dying from COPD has more than tripled. The increase in prevalence and mortality in women is likely due to the increase in women smoking since the 1940’s.

Proper Diagnosis and Treatment are Critical
Even though it is estimated that millions suffer from COPD, many may not be aware of the symptoms. More than half (51 percent) of smokers surveyed do not always volunteer to their doctor that they smoke, making diagnosis of the disease more difficult. In addition, only 16 percent of smokers put a high priority on seeking help for smoker’s cough, a key symptom of COPD. In contrast, nearly 60 percent of smokers would be very likely to seek help for migraine headaches, a debilitating, but not life-threatening condition.

“It is critical that patients at risk for COPD get diagnosed and treated, especially if they smoked their entire adult lives,” said Dr. Mark Millard, Medical Director, Baylor Asthma Pulmonary Rehabilitation Center. “If patients have symptoms such as cough and mucus or shortness of breath with activity, they should know that there is a simple lung function test called spirometry that can help diagnose the condition. For those who seek diagnosis and treatment, there are new medications available to help manage their condition.”

More on COPD: A Complex Disease with Multiple Components
COPD, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, is a complex lung disease that has several components: inflammation, bronchoconstriction and structural changes in the airways that restrict airflow. In the United States, it is estimated that more than 20 million people suffer from the disease, with more than 10 million of those undiagnosed.

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