Chronic lung disease in young adulthood is preventable, study finds

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Air pollution was identified as one of the biggest risk factors related to chronic lung issues

A new study conducted by researchers from the Karolinska Institute explored what factors could contribute to young people developing lung disease

According to their findings, consumers in their mid-twenties are likely to experience lung disease from a combination of influences from their childhoods, including a history with asthma, smoking, or exposure to air pollution.

Identifying risk factors

The researchers analyzed results from over 4,000 participants who were involved in the BAMSE (Child, Allergy, Milieu, Stockholm, Epidemiological) birth cohort study in Sweden. The researchers evaluated their health records when they reached 24 years old, and they were primarily interested in chronic lung disease, which included chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, and irreversible airflow irritation. 

The researchers identified three primary factors that increase young adults’ risk of developing chronic lung disease: childhood asthma, exposure to air pollution, and smoking. Current smokers were responsible for nearly 40 percent of the chronic bronchitis cases, and nearly half of the participants who experienced chronic bronchitis also self-reported more respiratory infections than those without the condition. 

“To our surprise, we found the prevalence of chronic bronchitis and irreversible airflow irritation to be rather high (5.5 percent and 2 percent, respectively), considering the young age of the study participants,” said researcher Erik Melen. “Those diseases are usually diagnosed in patients older than 50 years of age,” added researcher Anders Linde. 

Rural consumers less at risk

Though this study focused on a young population, the results highlight just how powerful -- and preventable -- these risks are. The findings suggest that it doesn’t take years of smoking to develop lung disease; in fact, only a brief window of exposure was enough to greatly affect the participants’ lung function. Similarly, the researchers explained that lung disease related to air pollution exposure was the worst for those who lived close to high-traffic areas, which indicates that those in more rural areas could have better health outcomes. 

“The levels of air pollutants in the current study mainly reflect local emissions from road traffic, which implies that this preventable risk factor may play an important role in the development of chronic lung disease in young adults,” said Melen. 

Moving forward, the researchers hope that these findings highlight how preventative measures taken in the early part of life could benefit consumers’ lung health as they move through young adulthood. 

“The take-home message is: If you want to prevent disease, early prevention is the key to success,” Melen said. 

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