COPD in Younger Adults Deadlier Than Expected

Neil Osterweil

May 25, 2021

Adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) experience significant morbidity and excess mortality from the disease, results of a population-based study show.

Among adults aged 35-55 years with COPD in Ontario in a longitudinal population cohort study, the overall mortality rate was fivefold higher, compared with other adults in the same age range without COPD.

In contrast, the mortality rate among adults 65 years and older with COPD was 2.5-fold higher than that of their peers without COPD, reported Alina J. Blazer, MSc, MD, a clinical and research fellow at the University of Toronto.

"Overall, our study has shown that younger adults with COPD experience significant morbidity, as evidence by their elevated rates of health care use and excess mortality from their disease. This study provides further evidence that so-called 'early' COPD is not a benign disease, and suggests that we should focus clinical efforts on identifying COPD in younger patients, in the hopes that earlier intervention may improve their current health, reduce resource utilization, and prevent further disease progression,” she said during a minisymposium at the American Thoracic Society's virtual international conference (Abstract A1131).

COPD is widely regarded as a disease affecting only older adults, but it can also occur in those younger than 65, and although it is commonly assumed that COPD diagnosed earlier in life will be milder in severity, this assumption has not been fully explored in real-world settings, Blazer said.

She and her colleagues conducted a study to examine disease burden as measured by health services utilization and mortality among younger adults with COPD, and compared the rates with those of older adults with COPD.

The sample for this study included 194,759 adults with COPD aged 35-55 years in Ontario in 2016. COPD was identified from health administrative data for three or more outpatient claims or one or more hospitalization claims for COPD over a 2-year period.

For context, the data were compared with those for 496,2113 COPD patients aged 65 years and older.

They found that, compared with their peers without the disease, younger adults had a 3.1-fold higher rate of hospitalization for any cause, a 2.2-fold higher rate of all-cause ED visits, and a 1.7-fold higher rate of outpatient visits for any cause.

In contrast, the comparative rates for seniors with versus without COPD were 2.1-fold, 1.8-fold, and 1.4-fold, respectively.

As noted before, the mortality rate for younger adults with COPD was 5-fold higher than for those without COPD, compared with 2.5-fold among older adults with COPD versus those without.

Earlier Diagnosis, Follow-up

"A very important talk,” commented session comoderator Valerie Press, MD, MPH, from the University of Chicago. "I know that there's a lot of work to be done in earlier diagnosis in general, and I think starting with the younger population is a really important area.”

She asked Blazer about the possibility of asthma codiagnosis or misdiagnosis in the younger patients.

"We use a very specific, validated case definition in the study that our group has used before, and the specificity is over 96% for physician-diagnosed COPD, at the expense of sensitivity, so if anything we probably underestimated the rate of COPD in our study,” Blazer said.

Audience member Sherry Rogers, MD, an allergist and immunologist in private practice in Syracuse, N.Y., asked whether the investigators could determine what proportion of the excess mortality they saw was attributable to COPD.

"This was looking at all-cause mortality, so we don't know that it's necessarily all attributable to COPD per se but perhaps also to COPD-attributable comorbidities,” Blazer said. "It would be important to piece out the actual causes of mortality that are contributing to that elevated [morality] in that population.”

She added that the next step could include examining rates of specialty referrals and pharmacotherapy to see whether younger patients with COPD are receiving appropriate care, and to ascertain how they are being followed.

The study was supported by the University of Toronto and Sunnybrook Research Institute. Blazer reported no conflicts of interest to disclose.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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