Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s elevation to Pope Francis has focused attention on what experts say is an often-overlooked but common medical problem: reduced lung function. The new pope reportedly had part of one lung surgically removed at age 21 as a result of infection.
Although the 76-year-old Catholic leader is apparently robust and in good shape for his age, there are steps that those with reduced lung function – from asthma, COPD, emphysema, and other conditions – can take to safeguard their health, a top lung specialist tells Newsmax Health.
“Although it is uncommon to lose an entire lung as the new pope did, many millions of people deal with impaired breathing every day,” said William Randall, M.D., pulmonary specialist with Mercy Medical Center’s Lutherville Personal Physician’s Group in Baltimore, Md.
Conditions that lead to breathing difficulties include chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD), the umbrella term for a group of ailments that includes emphysema. More than 13 million people in the U.S. suffer from these conditions. In addition, another 25 million people have asthma, and millions of others suffer from other illnesses that cause impaired lung function.
The best thing that a person with lung impairment can do is to “get in as best shape as possible,” Dr. Randall told Newsmax Health. Exercise can train the body to compensate for lost lung capacity. “I tell my patients to look at Olympic athletes. They are able to run farther because they’ve trained their body to do more with less oxygen,” he said.
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“Aerobic exercise, like learning to ride a real or stationary bike for long distances,” is a good way to build up the heart, as well as the rest of the body’s muscles, Dr. Randall said. That can mean that lung impairment will have less effect on functioning.
There are pulmonary rehabilitation programs which are “boot camps for people with respiratory problems,” he said, that can help people get their bodies in shape. Building strong muscles for endurance – not bodybuilding – is the key, he added.
Keeping a healthy heart is imperative. “The heart is like the engine and the lungs are like the carburetor. A normal person uses about 5 percent of their cardiac output to breathe. But if you have a lung problem, that can rise to 15-20 percent. So it’s important for the heart to be tuned up,” said Dr. Randall.
Proper breathing technique is also important. “You always want to breathe through the nose, not the mouth. If you breathe through the nose, you are heating and humidifying the air and making it easier on your lungs,” he said.
Here are Dr. Randall’s other recommendations for those with impaired respiratory function:
• Get an annual pneumonia and flu shot.
• Steer clear of noxious fumes, spray paint, or dust. Beauticians often have problems with chemicals that are used in beauty salons.
• Seek immediate treatment for early signs of bronchitis or other respiratory infections.
• If you have allergies that cause breathing problems, be diligent about avoiding triggers.
• If you have congestive heart failure, don’t delay treatment if you think that you are experiencing lung fluid buildup.
• Be careful about traveling to high elevations where air is thin.
• Stay at a normal weight. People who are overweight are far more prone to obstructive sleep apnea and chronic bronchitis, which put stress on the lungs.
The number one tip? “It seems obvious, but don’t smoke,” Dr. Randall said.
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