Close to half of U.S. adults over 40 who have trouble breathing due to asthma or COPD still continue to smoke, federal health officials reported this week.
The findings highlight the difficulty facing many smokers trying to quit – even when smoking exacerbates an already distressing illness, one expert said.
Quitting is challenging but possible
However, "with assistance, quitting may still be challenging but it is possible," said Patricia Folan, director of the Centre for Tobacco Control at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, New York.
The new U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics come a day after the release of another agency report, which found that 15 percent of Americans between 40 and 79 years of age suffer from some form of lung obstruction – typically asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Read: What is COPD?
COPD, a progressive illness often linked to smoking, includes two main conditions, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. According to the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, COPD affects millions of people and is the third leading cause of death in the United States.
In the new study, CDC researchers led by Ryne Paulose-Ram looked at data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Survey for the years 2007-2012.
They found that during that time, about 46 percent of adults aged 40 to 79 who had a lung-obstructing illness currently smoked. That number rose to 55 percent when the researchers looked only at cases involving "moderate or worse" disease.
Smoking rates were similar between the sexes, and rose as levels of education fell, the CDC said.
The agency noted that rates of smoking for people with lung obstruction were more than double that of people without such illnesses – about 20 percent.
Why do people whose illnesses are brought on or exacerbated by smoking continue with the deadly habit? Folan said the issues are often complex and tough to change.
"Approximately 40 percent of those with COPD experience high levels of depression and anxiety, making it more difficult to comply with treatment and quitting smoking," she said.
"What works best to help patients with COPD quit smoking is treatment for their depression," Folan said.
Read: What is the difference between COPD and asthma?
Also effective, she added, is "information about and availability of the most effective ways to quit, including FDA-approved cessation medications, empathetic counselling, motivational interviewing, and ongoing support from professionals, family and friends."
The alternative – to continue smoking – exacerbates COPD symptoms and raises the odds for death, Folan said.
Also, "since it is difficult to eat with shortness of breath, poor nutrition and unintended weight loss are also often consequences associated with COPD," she said. "Smoking can be an appetite suppressant and contribute to this weight loss."
Quitting can pay off
She said the effort needed to quit smoking may be tough, but can pay off in real dividends for health.
"For patients with COPD, the single best thing they can do for their lungs is quit smoking," Folan said.
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Image: Older gentleman smoking from Shutterstock