Study Predicts COPD Epidemic in 20 Years, Potentially Overwhelming Healthcare Systems

Patrícia Silva, PhD avatar

by Patrícia Silva, PhD |

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COPD epidemic predicted

Researchers at Canada’s University of British Columbia (UBC) determined that despite a decline in smoking rates, there will be an epidemic of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) over the next two decades, with the potential to overwhelm healthcare systems.

The report with the predictions was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, and is titled “The Projected Epidemic of COPD Hospitalizations Over the Next 15 Years: A Population Based Perspective.

COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. Symptoms include breathing difficulty, cough, mucus production and wheezing. COPD ranks as the fourth leading cause of death and hospitalization in developed countries. The future burden of COPD is uncertain as the trends in its main risk factors, mainly cigarette smoking and an aging population, are moving in opposite directions in many areas.

To predict future rates of the disease, researchers conducted forecasting analyses combining population statistics and health data for the province of British Columbia (B.C.).

The research team predicts that from 2010 to 2030, the absolute number of COPD cases will increase by more than 150 percent despite decreased rates of smoking, with the greatest increase seen in people age 75 years and older, where the absolute number will rise by 220 percent.

“Everyone who has seen the results has been surprised,” senior author Dr. Mohsen Sadatsafavi, assistant professor on the UBC faculties of pharmaceutical sciences and medicine, said in a news release.

“Many people think that COPD will soon be a problem of the past, because smoking is declining in the industrialized world. But aging is playing a much bigger role, and this is often ignored. We expect these B.C.-based predictions to be applicable to Canada and many other industrialized countries.”

Lead author Amir Khakban, health economist on the faculty of pharmaceutical sciences at UBC and the Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences, noted that age-adjusted COPD rates have remained constant as smoking rates have declined.

“This pattern, along with an aging population and a decrease in mortality rates, is responsible for the alarming growth in the burden of COPD,” he said.

While other diseases associated with aging are projected to increase over the next decades, the researchers believe COPD will surpass them all.

In their analysis, the team also determined that the burden of inpatient care, measured as the total annual inpatient days, will grow by 185 percent, a finding that again is mainly driven by the aging of the population.

These alarming predictions make clear that there is an urgent need to develop new preventive strategies and treatments to reduce the future burden of COPD.

According to Dr. Don Sin, study’s co-author and a professor in the UBC department of medicine’s division of respiratory medicine and head of respiratory medicine at St. Paul’s Hospital, the healthcare system is not equipped to deal with this burden.

“Our only hope of changing this trajectory is to find new therapeutic and biomarker solutions to prevent and treat COPD, and this can only happen through research and innovation,” Sin said. “Our UBC team is poised to make these breakthroughs.”