Men and women who have COPD are five times more likely to have heart disease than the general population. When COPD and heart disease exist together, each impacts the outcome of the other and increases your risk of death.
Some of the same risk factors associated with COPD are also linked to cardiovascular disease, such as smoking. The effects of COPD itself also impacts your chances of developing heart disease. The heart and lungs are so inextricably linked; it’s easy to see how the conditions tend to influence each other.
To understand the heart/lung connection, let's take a look at how the cardio-respiratory system works.
The Heart and Lungs Work Closely Together
The heart and lungs are the vital organs that make up the cardio-respiratory system, which delivers oxygen and removes waste from the body. The lungs and heart exchange gases during this continual process.
When you inhale, your lungs take in oxygen and deliver the molecules to the bloodstream, which circulate through the heart and get delivered to the tissues of the body to keep you alive. The carbon dioxide that your cells produce as waste takes that ride in reverse, heading up through the heart and out of the body through the lungs.
It’s easy to see how the heart and lungs are both so closely linked that factors that impact one can cause repercussions to the other. Now that we have a better idea of how the heart and lungs work together let’s take a closer look at exactly how COPD impacts the heart.
How COPD Affects the Heart
COPD is marked by damage to your lung tissue: the worse the damage, the more progressed the disease. As the condition worsens, the risk of death increases.
Some of the underlying mechanisms that lead to heart damage and strain include lung hyperinflation, inflammation, COPD exacerbations, and hypoxia:
- Lung hyperinflation: air gets trapped in the lungs causing over-inflation, which can compress and thereby damage the heart
- Inflammation: swelling and irritation from smoking and lung damage can cause heart damage
- COPD exacerbation: a flare-up can amplify the effects of COPD and heart damage
- Hypoxia: lack of oxygen can lead to atherosclerosis and thereby cardiovascular disease
When lung tissue is damaged, the heart has to work harder to keep up with the body’s need for oxygen. This increased strain on the heart can eventually lead to heart failure.
Heart failure, in turn, can cause fluid buildup in the lungs, making breathing even more difficult. This creates a vicious cycle of strain and damage to both the heart and the lungs.
In addition to the effects that COPD has on the heart, the two conditions also share some common risk factors that link them together.
Shared Risk Factors
Some of the same risk factors that increase your chances of developing COPD also boost your chances of developing heart disease. It’s not uncommon to develop one alongside the other.
Accelerated aging is a risk factor for both COPD and heart disease, mostly in men and women over 65. As cell turnover rate in the lungs and arteries decline and telomeres (segments of DNA) shorten, the function of the heart and lungs also decreases, making you susceptible to both conditions.
Leading a sedentary lifestyle negatively influences your heart and lung health. The organs don’t function as well when they’re not conditioned. If you’re not active, you’re also more likely to experience COPD exacerbation, hospitalizations, and death.
Now that we’ve identified this strong relationship between COPD and cardiac problems, you might be wondering how to manage your risk.
How to Manage COPD and Heart Disease Risk
If you or a loved one has COPD, you and your healthcare providers can do a lot to prevent or manage heart disease risk:
First, it’s essential to screen anyone with COPD for heart disease, since the conditions so commonly exist hand-in-hand. Early recognition and prevention are important for the best possible outcomes with COPD and heart disease.
If your doctor hasn’t mentioned it already, ask them about heart disease testing at your next appointment. If your doctor requests a CT scan for your lungs, for example, he or she can check for calcium buildup in the lungs at the same time. Also, make sure to report any new or lingering COPD and heart disease symptoms you experience.
If you don’t have heart disease already, you can still do a lot to prevent its onset by controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol, exercising, eating right, and limiting factors that exacerbate your condition.
If you do have heart disease, you should find integrated care in both the cardiac and pulmonary specialties. Clinics that specialize in COPD and heart disease, such as Rehab Select, cover, and coordinate this type of specialized care for coexisting conditions.
More severe cases may require inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation. If you have a COPD-related event, you may undergo comprehensive pulmonary rehabilitation and cardiac rehab using clinically-effective therapies to help you recover.
Your specialists set you up with the most effective medications, therapies, and treatment regimens to manage your conditions going forward.
You can make some lifestyle modifications to significantly improve your condition, including smoking cessation and physical activity. Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your heart and lungs (and the rest of your body). Physical activity also helps condition your heart and lungs to operate at max function.
The more you know about COPD and heart disease, the more prepared you’ll feel going forward. You’ll learn how to take control of your health and improve your quality of life. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor lots of questions and do some research on your own.
You can start today by reading through the Heart Disease ebook. Our guide gives you insight into the causes, effects, prevention, and treatment of heart disease.