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The fastest growing segment of the US population consists of individuals of age 65 and older. In the 2010 census, this segment comprised 16% of the population. Since the 1950s, the median age of the US population has increased by 20 years.

The largest decrements in age-adjusted death rates have been occurring in older patients. With the increasing longevity of human population, it is necessary to understand the effects of aging on the respiratory system in healthy people. Perhaps more importantly, because the age-related decrements in respiratory system function can be unmasked by disease, it is critically important to point out that the aged: (1) have an enhanced predisposition to lung disease; (2) have a decreasing reserve of respiratory system function that decreases their ability to cope with the stresses of illness, injury, and surgery; and (3) may have differing responses to therapy when compared with their younger counterparts.

Even in individuals who enjoy apparently good health, there are measurable decrements in function of the respiratory system with age. These changes occur progressively as a healthy individual grows older and are most marked beyond 60 years of age. Cross-sectional studies show clear differences between elderly and young persons with regard to the structure and function of the components of the respiratory system (Table 19-1). As we will see, however, caution must be exercised in ascribing observed changes to age alone. It is also necessary to be aware that longitudinal studies of “healthy” individuals followed to old age are essentially not available. Where appropriate, methodologic problems in the available cross-sectional studies are described.

Table 19-1Respiratory System: Functional Divisions and Changes with Aging

Although age-associated changes can be measured easily by objective testing, it is important to note that the routine activities of healthy elderly persons are not limited by the decreasing respiratory system function. However, whereas youthful persons have a marked excess of functional capacity over the amount required to meet metabolic needs at rest or ...

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