Here's Why You Can't Ignore Lung Health & Only Focus on the Heart

Health News
4 min read

For breath is life; so if you breathe well, you will live long on earth: Sanskrit Proverb

An oft-asked question, which is more important to the body, the lungs, or the heart? More often than not, people say “the heart”. Sure enough, the heart is a strong muscle beating at 60-100 beats a minute, throughout one’s lifetime. On the other hand, the heart depends on oxygen delivered via the lungs to function well.

In the absence of oxygen, the heart would just stop beating.

Indeed, our life begins with an inhalation and ends with an exhalation. And then again, the lungs can oxygenate the blood only if the heart pumps blood through them. These two vital organs, the heart, and the lungs are a “team” working together to make sure all body cells receive the oxygen-rich blood essential for them to function properly.

When speaking of good health though, discussions on heart health have eclipsed all other organs.

The lungs have often been taken for granted as has been the act of breathing, even though the lungs work as hard as the heart to keep us healthy. Consider the fact that an adult at rest breathes about 17,280 to 23,040 times a day at 12 to 16 breaths per minute and vigorous physical activity or exercise results in more breaths per day. Akin to a healthy heart, healthy lungs are also crucial for our overall well-being.

Lungs Need Your Attention

Through the air we breathe, the lungs are directly in contact with the outside environment and therefore exposed to allergens, infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses and fungi, pollutants, and toxins. Data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that air pollution kills up to seven million people worldwide every year, with ambient air pollution accounting for an estimated 4.2 million deaths per year.

Rising pollution increases the susceptibility to respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections. According to the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, the most comprehensive worldwide observational epidemiological study to date, India has 32% of the global burden of respiratory diseases, second only to that of ischaemic heart disease (IHD). Chronic respiratory diseases were responsible for 10.9% of the total deaths and 6.4% of the total DALYs in India in 2016. DALY or disability-adjusted life year is a measure of overall disease burden, expressed as the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability, or early death.

Fuel combustion from motor vehicles, roadside and construction dust, heat and power generation plants and boilers, industrial facilities, municipal and agricultural waste sites, and waste incineration/burning and residential cooking, heating, and lighting with polluting fuels are some of the common sources of air pollutants. In rural India, women continue to cook with biomass, a combination of wood, crop waste, charcoal, and dung, raising the risk of COPD in these women multi-fold.

Air pollutants penetrate the airways and cause lung inflammation and damage. Worse still, those suffering from pre-existing lung diseases such as COPD and asthma, are more likely to be affected by the detrimental consequences of air pollution, increasing the risk of acute attacks, and worsening the disease with time.

Tuberculosis, flu, pneumonia, and other infections of the respiratory tract such as the more recent coronavirus infection are extremely common and can be transmitted easily, severely impacting lung health, in the more vulnerable population.

The results of the Longitudinal Ageing Study in India (LASI), - a national survey of health, economic and social determinants, and consequences of aging in the Indian population showed that an alarming 50% of people aged 45 years and above have abnormal lung function. Of the 55,186 people assessed for lung health, 40% had decreased lung volume, and inadequate ventilation and/or oxygenation.

Tips to Improving Lung Health

Prolonged exposure to cigarette smoke can cause severe damage to the airways and lungs with time.
(Photo: iStock)

The air holding capacity of the lungs typically diminishes with age. Similarly, lung diseases such as COPD can reduce lung capacity and functioning leading to difficulty in breathing and shortness of breath.

As goes the old and popular proverb, “Prevention is better than cure”, one of the best steps to better lung health is to stop smoking and to avoid cigarette smoke.

  • Prolonged exposure to cigarette smoke can cause severe damage to the airways and lungs with time.

  • Try and avoid exposure to outdoor air pollutants. The air quality outside can vary from day to day and sometimes is unhealthy to breathe. Avoid exercising or spending time outdoors when air quality is poor.

  • You can improve indoor air quality by keeping the home dust and mold-free and use of indoor air filters that can reduce pollutants within the home.

  • Consume healthy foods rich in antioxidants.

  • Exercising regularly can improve your lung health. Besides, there are several simple breathing exercises that can improve the capacity of your lungs. Yoga asanas are known to improve the efficiency of the lungs, making them stronger to help fight pollution.

  • You can also learn to play a wind instrument or sing aloud to increase your lung capacity.

Try and prevent respiratory Infections by maintaining regular hygiene practices. Wash your hands often with soap and water. Avoids crowds during the cold and flu season. Good oral hygiene can protect you from the germs in your mouth resulting in infections of the airways.

Compared to tests that check for heart health, checking lung function is relatively easy. A simple apparatus such as a spirometer can help measure the volume of air inspired and expired by the lungs.

Care for your lungs. They are at the heart of a healthy you!

Life is pretty easy. Breathe in and breathe out, then repeat. – Author Unknown

(Dr Jaideep Gogtay is chief medical officer with Cipla)

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