Breathe life into your lungs: Ways to keep your lungs healthy

Ways to keep your lungs healthy

The human lungs is a pretty amazing organ that keeps us alive and well. It works non-stop, keeping all the other organs and every cell in our bodies oxygenated. In fact, the Lung Health Institute even mentioned in an article that an average person breathes an equivalent of around six litres of air every minute. Harvard Health Publishing also said that an average man who lives to about age 80 years breathes up to more than 672 million times during his lifetime. 

However, our breathing pattern and lung function change when we reach the age of 60s and above. And while lung function can diminish with age, it is still possible to keep them working at an optimal level.

Facts about your lungs

Did you know that the lungs are about the size of tennis courts when they are opened flat? It may sound impossible at first but it is true! Aside from that, according to the American Lung Association, the total length of our airways running through our lungs is about 1500 miles or 2414 kilometers. So, when you think about it, this is about the distance from Las Vegas to Chicago!

The air in our lungs

When we inhale, the air flows into both of our lungs to fill the tiny air sacs called alveoli. The blood that circulates around these alveoli through small blood vessels. Where the alveoli or the tiny air sacs and blood vessels meet inside our lungs is also where the oxygen we inhaled moves into our circulation (the bloodstream). At the same time, the carbon dioxide from the blood goes to the lungs to be exhaled. This process is called the “gas exchange”. If you want to see how it happens, you can watch gas exchange video at Medline Plus Gas Exchange article.

How aging affects our lungs

As we age, the blood vessels aren’t the only ones that become stiffer, the airways become less efficient and the air sacs expand, become saggy, and lose their shape. These changes makes it more difficult for the gas exchange to occur and the oxygen to move into the bloodstream or the carbon dioxide to move into the lungs. The result, older individuals may get tired more easily doing everyday activities, even simple ones like walking a short distance or doing some gardening, and climbing a small flight of stairs. It may also cause trouble doing strenuous activities such as swimming or aerobics, and you may feel more fatigued after doing so.

Factors that can accelerate your lungs’ aging

A number of factors can speed up the process of your lungs' aging, or damage them. These factors include exposure to air pollution, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, and frequent respiratory infections. 

Exposure to air pollution

photography of white smoke

Air pollution exposure is linked with inflammation in the cells and the imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body called oxidative stress. Free radicals can result in chemical reactions in the body since their nature is to react easily with other molecules. These chemical reactions are called oxidation which can be harmful to the body. Research suggests that exposure to air pollution is increasingly implicated in various health outcomes such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and, most recently, lung cancer.


person holds cigarette stick

According to an article published by the FDA Organization, smoking can cause serious and immediate damage to health as it can have major ill effects on the lungs at all ages. As a matter of fact, studies say that each puff of cigarette smoke, which contains a mix of over 7,000 chemicals get into the body through the lungs. These toxic chemicals can cause throat irritation and soreness in as little as 10 minutes. Other chemicals like acrolein, found in cigarette smoke, can even cause irreversible lung damage. In addition to that, those who smoke cigarettes or other tobacco products can develop weaker and stiffer lungs, and have an increased risk for developing pulmonary diseases such as COPD, lung cancer, and respiratory cancers of the bronchus, voice box, oropharynx, and windpipe. And not only that because sadly, the effects and damage of smoking in the lungs are permanent.

Sedentary lifestyle

woman lying on bed covered with white blanket

Along with smoking, sedentary lifestyle also ages the lungs faster. This means that being a couch potato, too much sitting, or too much physical inactivity can potentiate the effects of smoking and accelerate age related lung problems. Study finds that it can even lead to embolism. Other studies of the respiratory system also indicate that aging lungs contain larger, and fewer alveoli with reduced respiratory muscle strength. It also showed that there is an increased calcification or hardening of the intrathoracic joints. These changes in the end, are believed to likely affect the mechanics of the lungs and other parts of the respiratory system. Afterwhich, can modify the static work of breathing. In short, all of these consequences of sedentary lifestyle leads to a reduction in lung tissue flexibility or elastic work as evidenced by several literature which contains several claims and reports that some aging humans experience. If these previous sentences sound too complicated, just imagine several rubber balloons acting like alveoli hardening and making air flow difficult.

Frequent respiratory infections

Unfortunately, repeated infection in the respiratory tract can affect lung function too. The associated inflammation with frequent respiratory infection causes a reduction in the integrity of the lung tissues and cells. And then, over the next few years, combined with other factors such as aging, the decline in lung function will become apparent.

Other factors that can negatively affect lungs 

Other issues can affect lung function, too. For example, as you age bones can become thinner, which can lead to health conditions such as osteoporosis, affecting posture and making the chest/rib cage smaller and stiffer. With a smaller and stiffer rib cage the lungs will find it harder to fully expand as you breathe. It can also reduce the volume of air that the lungs can hold. Moreover, the muscle called diaphragm, that supports breathing, as well as other accessory muscles for breathing also can weaken with age. All of these result in difficulty in taking in full breaths as you age.