Doctor feeling elderly woman's hands

How to Manage Emphysema or COPD in the Elderly

Millions of Americans – more than 16 million, to be exact! – are living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which refers to various diseases, including emphysema, that cause issues with breathing and airflow obstruction. Unfortunately, the issues associated with COPD-related illnesses have led it to become the third most common cause of death in the United States and, by 2030, it is projected to become the third most common cause of death not only in the US, but worldwide.

For seniors living with COPD, especially those with emphysema, many questions may arise as it relates to their future health. For instance, what is the difference between COPD vs emphysema? Does emphysema go away? And is emphysema considered a terminal illness? Read on for answers to these questions, then contact our knowledgeable staff at Moweaqua Rehabilitation & Health Care Center, in Moweaqua, Illinois, to see how we can help you or your loved one manage your COPD symptoms comfortably.

Causes and Types of COPD

So, what causes COPD in elderly citizens? It may come as no surprise to learn that one of the leading causes is cigarette smoking, followed by the inhalation of pollutants – such as exposure to biomass fuels like wood and grasses – for a prolonged period.

The two most common types of COPD include chronic bronchitis and emphysema. To be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, an individual must have a constant cough that produces a mucus known as sputum; this cough must occur repeatedly over the course of two successive years. In contrast, emphysema’s main symptom is shortness of breath – a symptom not quite as common in those with bronchitis (though, with the swelling caused by inflammation from the cough, it is possible).

Unfortunately, while symptoms of chronic bronchitis and emphysema can be managed, there is no cure for COPD-related illnesses such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema. They are lifelong conditions. How long can an elderly person live with COPD? Well, it depends on the severity of the condition. For those with mild to moderate COPD who begin medical treatments right away and quit smoking, if applicable, the five-year life expectancy rate can range anywhere from 40 percent to 70 percent. For those with severe COPD, that rate drops: the two-year survival rate is just 50 percent. If you are diagnosed with COPD or emphysema, treatment should begin as quickly as possible to help manage symptoms.

Treating COPD and Emphysema

The most important steps in treating COPD-related illnesses like emphysema are to stop smoking immediately, if applicable, and to begin drug treatments to help keep the airways open. When considering how to treat emphysema, which involves the primary symptom of shortness of breath, you might also be required to use oxygen or have other forms of pulmonary rehabilitation. Rehabilitation and health care centers, like Moweaqua, can offer you or your loved one personalized care plans to help manage your individual needs and symptoms of COPD or emphysema.

Can emphysema be improved?

While there is no definitive cure for COPD, including emphysema, managing symptoms can help extend life expectancy rates and can improve the individual’s quality of life. Here are answers to a few of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to managing the symptoms of emphysema:

  1. Does walking help emphysema? And, more generally, does exercise help emphysema?

Answer: Yes, to an extent! Engaging in breathing exercises and also getting regular cardiovascular exercise (like walking) can help to reduce the severity of symptoms and can also help produce a more positive prognosis when it comes to emphysema; however, as a reminder, there is no cure for the disease. Emphysema is a lifelong, progressive illness.

  1. How do you know what foods to avoid if you have emphysema?

Answer: For most COPD-related diseases, it’s important to follow a reduced-carbohydrate diet, as the reduction in carbohydrates can result in lower production of carbon dioxide in the body. That said, cutting out carbs entirely may be difficult for many individuals; if that’s the case for you or your loved one, try adding in complex carbs, like peas, beans, lentils or oats, instead. It’s also important to take in as many potassium-rich foods as possible, as potassium is a mineral and electrolyte vital to lung function. Potassium-rich foods include things like dark leafy greens, beets, asparagus, bananas, oranges, tomatoes or avocados, among others.

In terms of what to avoid, individuals with COPD should definitely curb the salt habit! Sodium can cause the body to retain water, and too much water retention can make it difficult for you to breathe. In addition, some fruits, vegetables and legumes can cause bloating or gas, which can also lead to breathing problems in some individuals. Such produce includes items like apples, melons, beans, cabbage, corn, onions or soybeans.


At Moweaqua Rehabilitation & Health Care Center, our licensed and trained staff are here to help you or your senior loved one begin the process of managing your COPD-related symptoms. And, thanks to our talented cooks and dietitians, you won’t have to worry about managing your diet while also learning to manage your illness; we’ll do it for you! Our delicious, nutritious meals – prepared fresh daily – offer exceptional nutrition without compromising flavor or presentation.

With our health education sessions and social, wellness and daily fitness programs, you’ll learn all about how to manage your symptoms on your own or with the help of a loved one; and, while you’re here, you’ll be treated to comforting hospitality with our housekeeping and linen services, as well as personal laundry.

Contact us today to learn more about how our Moweaqua, Illinois, community can help you or your loved one with COPD.