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Learning Objectives

  • Identify the most common clinical definitions of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and their limitations in older adults.

  • Establish goals of care in older adults with COPD, most often directed at relieving symptoms, improving exercise tolerance and health status, reducing the risk of disease progression and exacerbations, as well as managing comorbidities.

  • Define the palliative care needs of older adults with advanced COPD, including symptom management and potential indications for referral to hospice.

Key Clinical Points

  1. Age is a major risk factor for respiratory symptoms and the development of COPD due to age-related changes in lung physiology, and a greater exposure to COPD risk factors, particularly a higher prevalence of “ever smoking” or other relevant exposures in the older adult population.

  2. Although symptoms consistent with COPD (eg, cough, hypersecretion of mucus) are common among seniors, two-thirds of persons who have symptoms of chronic bronchitis and half of those with physician-diagnosed emphysema/COPD have normal spirometry (ie, do not have airflow obstruction, yet may be at risk for poor clinical outcomes).

  3. A reduced FEV1/FVC establishes a diagnosis of airflow obstruction and at least partial irreversibility is required to demonstrate chronic airflow obstruction, the hallmark of COPD. However, normal age-related airflow limitation is also characterized by a reduced FEV1/FVC, and the threshold used to define COPD in seniors must account for normal aging.

    1. The most often used criteria for establishing and staging airflow obstruction are based on the Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) criteria. The age-related limitations of the GOLD guidelines include two fundamental flaws: (1) GOLD defines a reduced FEV1/FVC by a fixed ratio of 0.70, which does not distinguish between age-related airflow limitation and COPD (disease)-related airflow obstruction; and (2) GOLD expresses the FEV1 as a percentage of predicted value, thus failing to account for age-related variability in spirometric performance. This leads to potential risk of overdiagnosis of COPD (ie, disease, as compared to age-related airflow obstruction, in older adults). The reduced FEV1/FVC ratio among older adults for whom the ratio is normal for age is not associated with respiratory symptoms, exercise intolerance, impaired mobility, COPD hospitalization, or mortality.

    2. The Global Lung Initiative (GLI) has recommended the lower limit of normal be instead defined as the fifth percentile distribution of Z-scores (Z-score of –1.64), and use reference equations that include Americans and many other ethnicities (worldwide), as well as age range of up to 95 years. Prior work has shown that airflow obstruction defined by an FEV1/FVC Z-score less than –1.64 is associated with respiratory symptoms, impaired mobility, frailty status, COPD hospitalization, and mortality.

    3. Reductions in FVC related to kyphosis/scoliosis, obesity, respiratory muscle weakness, and other factors may cause “pseudo-normalization” of the FEV1/FVC ratio, and in turn mask the presence of COPD.

  4. Treatment of COPD in seniors is complicated by difficulty with drug administration (eg, due to cognitive impairment, physical disability) ...

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