Comorbidities and the Prognosis of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Javier Cotelo, MD

January 03, 2023

Strict control of comorbidities in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease decreases exacerbations, morbimortality, and avoids readmissions. An increasing number of women have the disease, which progresses differently in women than in men and even has different comorbidities.

"Comorbidities in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are more common in older adults, in those with more advanced pulmonary disease, and in those that are hospitalized for an acute exacerbation," said Belén Alonso, MD, PhD, coordinator of the COPD Working Group of the Spanish Society of Internal Medicine. Up to 73 comorbidities associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease have been described. Alonso made these remarks during her presentation at the Comorbidities in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Panel, which took place during the 43rd Conference of the Spanish Society of Internal Medicine (SEMI), in Gijón, Spain.

According to the scientific society's press release, moderator María Gómez Antúnez, MD, stated, "The correct approach and treatment of these comorbidities is fundamental to improve the quality of life of the patient, decrease exacerbations, avoid readmissions, and decrease morbimortality in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease."

The different works published, two of them by the SEMI COPD Working Group (ECCO and ESMI studies), indicate that the main comorbidities of patients with that pneumopathy are arterial hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes, heart failure, atrial fibrillation, ischemic heart disease, chronic kidney disease, peripheral arterial disease, and osteoporosis. Chronic hepatopathy, pulmonary neoplasm, depression, and cerebrovascular disease are less common.

73 Comorbidities Described

Alonso told Medscape Spanish edition, "Of those 73 comorbidities, some of the lesser known or less attention grabbing, according to a paper that we brought to the panel, include sleep disorders that encompass insomnia, nightmares, night terrors, sleep apneas, or hypopneas. Other lesser-known comorbidities related to cognitive decline, with patterns that reflect that up to 60% [of patients] may have some degree of deterioration, involve the disease phase, hypoxemia, or degree of inflammation. On the other hand, it has also been associated with Parkinson's disease and gastroesophageal reflux, among many more that arise from the cardiovascular sphere."

One paper reveals that more than 78% of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease have one associated comorbidity, almost 69% have two, and 47.9% have three.

"Based on gender, comorbidities are different. In women, it is well observed that anxiety, depression, and osteoporosis are more common. However, hypertension, ischemic heart disease, and diabetes are more common in men with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," she stated.

"The pulmonary disease in question also progresses differently in men and women. In women, onset is at younger ages — between 40 and 50 years — and in men, after 50. Likewise, it appears that the disease progresses more quickly, which coincides with a worse quality of life (since dyspnea is tolerated less) and exceeds the anatomical differences, where hormonal influences play a dominant role," Alonso stressed.

Reciprocal Prognosis

Alonso stated, "The prognostic importance of comorbidities in the disease is reciprocal. In other words, if there are comorbidities that we do not look for or treat, they are going to have a negative influence on the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The disease will progress more and elevate the risk of exacerbations (the most important prognostic factor of that disease). In turn, if we are not treating the disease well, not only pharmacologically, it will have negative repercussions on the comorbidities. It will progress and have negative connotations, such as diabetes or ischemic heart disease."

The aforementioned ECCO and ESMI studies include patients in internal medicine with exacerbations where the most common comorbidities have been mapped out, although there is also extensive research on comorbidities in patients who are admitted to departments other than internal medicine. "With regard to prognostic implications, our working group very clearly observed the comorbidities and the comorbidome, that solar system that appears so much in medical conferences and forums, which implies that proximity to the center of that solar system is related more to mortality, anxiety, depression, and breast cancer. Other pathologies, such as ischemic heart disease or dyslipidemia, are outside of that territory of greater risk, in which we have been more pioneering than other groups," said Alonso.

The current trend is that the age of these patients is increasing, and there are more and more women with this pathology. According to the latest report from the Ministry of Health on respiratory diseases, the prevalence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among the population 40 years and older is around 33.9 cases per 1000 inhabitants, more than twice as common in men than in women (47.7 vs 21.3). Prevalence increases with age after 40 years progressively until reaching the greatest frequency in the 80- to 84-year-old age group.

In 2019, the number of deaths due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in Spain was 13,808 (9907 men and 3901 women), with a crude mortality rate of 29.3 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. This toll decreased in comparison with that of 2018. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease causes 2.5 times more deaths in men than in women. From 2001 to 2019, mortality due to that pathology declined by 43% in men and women. The decrease was almost 50% in men and 33% in women.

Overlap Syndrome Prevalent

Javier Sánchez Lora, MD, of the Internal Medicine Department of the Virgen de la Victoria de Málaga University Clinical Hospital, discussed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and sleep disorders. More concretely, he spoke about overlap syndrome: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease plus obstructive sleep apnea. According to the international consensus document on obstructive sleep apnea, the diagnosis requires an apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) equal to or greater than 15 per hour or equal to or greater than 5. The patient must also have one or more of the following factors: excessive daytime sleepiness, sleep that is not restful, excessive fatigue, and deterioration in quality of life related to sleep and not justified by other causes.

"The overlap syndrome affects 3%-66% of chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and 7%- 55% of obstructive sleep apnea," said Sánchez. This syndrome has important effects on different systems: at the cardiovascular level (arterial and pulmonary hypertension, heart failure, stroke, arrhythmias, ischemic heart disease, pulmonary thromboembolism), metabolic effects (insulin resistance, diabetes, metabolic syndrome), neurocognitive (dementia, depression), and neoplastic (lung, pancreas, esophagus) effects.

"These patients have a worse prognosis than those that have these pathologies alone. During sleep, they experience more frequent episodes of oxygen desaturation and they have a longer total period of sleep with hypoxemia and hypercapnia than those with obstructive apnea alone without chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," said Sánchez.

The apneic events of patients with the syndrome have a more profound hypoxemia and more arrhythmias, in addition to being more susceptible to developing pulmonary hypertension than those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or sleep apnea alone. "The good news is that in patients with overlap, the use of ventilation with positive pressure reduces all causes of hospitalization and the visits to the emergency room, as well as the moderate and severe exacerbations of the disease."

Sánchez referred to a series of recommendations in clinical practice for the diagnosis and treatment of overlap syndrome: screening, combined therapy of hygienic-dietary measures, and the use of continuous positive respiratory pressure. Oxygen therapy to correct isolated nocturnal desaturations has not shown benefits in survival, although a benefit trial of symptoms attributed to nocturnal hypoxemia in patients with significant comorbidity can be conducted.


"During the panel, we also spoke about the importance that as part of internal medicine we need to make an effort to reduce the underdiagnosis of chronic pulmonary disease and its comorbidities. Specialists in internal medicine need to become aware that this pathology is not only pulmonary, but also multisystemic, complex, heterogenous, and very variable even in the same patient," said Sánchez.

Alonso said, "Regarding the importance of diagnosis of this disease, we continue with an underdiagnosis greater than 70% for men and 80% for women. Secondly, we need to actively seek out the comorbidities associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, even taking advantage of the admission of these patients with exacerbations, which are undesired and common.

"Regarding ongoing trials, we have a study that started during the COVID-19 pandemic, ADEG-EPOC, that involves the adaptation to and impact of severe and very severe exacerbations in patients admitted to our departments," the specialist indicated.

"In the group, we are also planning to publish an updated agreement, which we already made in 2014, on the most common and important comorbidities associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease." The agreement discusses the 20 most important comorbidities. In addition, the 2023 Gold Guide, which appeared in November 2022, includes a new chapter on updated treatment and the latest developments.

In the last 5 years, Alonso has collaborated with Abbott, AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, Chiesi, FAES, Ferrer, Fresenius Kabi, GSK, Nestlé, Novo Nordisk, Nutricia, and Menarini. Sánchez has collaborated with AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, Chiesi, FAES, GSK, and Menarini.

Follow Javier Cotelo, MD, of Medscape Spanish Edition on Twitter @Drjavico.

This article was translated from the Medscape Spanish edition.


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