Dear COPD Coach,
I am 40 years old and have noticed recently that I have been getting out of breath more easily than I used to. I do not exercise like I should, so maybe I am just out of shape. What worries me is that I have a history of COPD in my family. A grandparent on each side of my family died of lung problems, and my mother was diagnosed a few years ago as having COPD. I am really afraid to seek some help because I know what they are going to say. Here is my question. Can COPD be inherited?
–Looking for answers
We know one inherited form of COPD. It is called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency. It is inherited from both your parents, however if only one parent is a carrier, you could well be a carrier also. Alpha-1 was discovered 50 years ago, and because it is indeed inherited, it is a prime candidate to test for especially if there is a history of lung disease in the family.
Alpha-1 is the lack of a protein in the blood called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin. This is a protein that is produced in the liver and is used by the body to protect the lungs from inflammation caused by an infection or irritants like tobacco or pollution. If you have low levels of this protein, or the protein you make is abnormal and cannot get out of the liver, lung disease can occur. Interestingly enough, it has been documented that cigarette smoke has a tendency to render the protein inactive, so smokers who actually do not have Alpha-1 simulate the disorder through cigarette smoke.
The test for Alpha-1 is a simple, free blood test that you can actually do at home. For information on how to obtain a home test kit call our information line at 866-316-COPD (2673). Here is the important thing to remember: If you are an Alpha-1, then you also carry the gene which can then be passed on to your children. It is our firm belief that ALL people with COPD as well as those who have a history of lung disease in their family should be tested for Alpha-1!
As to whether other forms of COPD are inherited, we believe the answer is probably yes, we just do not have the clinical proof as of right now. We have recently completed enrollment in a COPDGene® Study, which we hope will begin to answer that exact question. The thought is that if we can find the genetic link or cause, new targeted treatments can be developed and ultimately a cure! In fact, there is a treatment for Alpha-1 that has been shown to slow the progression lung damage, but it is not a cure.
As for being afraid to find out if you indeed have COPD, my advice would be that it would be much worse if you didn’t find out. COPD is now the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States, and most people with COPD are not identified until their symptoms are so bad that they can no longer be ignored. While COPD is not curable, if diagnosed early, with proper treatment and lifestyle changes (avoiding tobacco and irritants) you prognosis is greatly improved and the decline can in most cases be drastically slowed down.
The most immediate step you can and should take is if you smoke, stop smoking and avoid second hand smoke. If you are exposed to other irritants such as strong chemicals or pollution, stop or limit your exposure. Speak with your doctor about your symptoms and get appropriate medication if required. Lastly, stay active and establish a regular exercise routine (speak with your doctor about what exercises would be safe and beneficial).
COPD is not necessarily a death sentence, but it is for many a call for a lifestyle change. The steps you take now, can greatly extend your life and allow you to remain active much longer!
Hope this helps, and keep us posted.
–The COPD Coach
Ask the Expert is aimed at providing information for individuals with COPD to take to your doctor, and is not in any way intended to be medical advice.
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