Snuffing out COPD

Why actress Loni Anderson is passionate about raising awareness of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the No. 4 killer of Americans.

Health Monitor Staff
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Although Loni Anderson, best known for her part as the whip-smart blonde Jennifer Marlowe on WKRP in Cincinnati, has been acting since she was 10 years old, her strongest childhood memory is of her parents smoking. "My sister, Andrea, and I used to say that we didn't need an alarm clock for school because [we would wake up to] our dad coughing," Loni has said. "When he was in his 30s, he had to cough for about 15 minutes to clear his lungs before he could get ready to go to work. By his late 30s, it had escalated to a half hour, and by the time he was in his 40s it was an hour."

Both of Loni's parents started smoking at young ages. Eventually, they developed chronic bronchitis (in which the airways are irritated), and her father suffered from emphysema (in which the lungs are damaged). These conditions are now known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This lung ailment is the fourth leading killer of people in the U.S., and the primary cause is smoking. "It's not a well-publicized disease," Loni has said. "A lot of people…have it and aren't aware of it. People think, I have asthma or I just have this cough and I'm getting older and a little shorter of breath and it's no big deal. They don't realize that they could be getting help and some relief. There is no cure, but you can start treating it and have a better quality of life!"

Unfortunately, Loni's mother died at 60 from pancreatic and liver cancers, and her dad died at 54 from prostate cancer. Loni and Andrea developed asthma in their 40s as a result of their exposure to secondhand smoke. The condition puts the sisters at increased risk for COPD. Today, Loni is raising awareness of the disease as a spokesperson for the National Lung Health Education Program. In addition to urging others to quit smoking if they light up, Loni recommends taking these simple steps to preserve lung health:

Get tested. "Almost every person over 45—and definitely those who have ever smoked—should have a spirometry test," Loni has said. "You breathe into a spirometer [a tube connected to a small machine], which measures your lung capacity. Oftentimes, we don't even notice a problem until we are in our 40s." The later the disease is diagnosed, the more difficult it is to treat.

Avoid dust and airborne chemicals. Working in an environment that causes you to breathe in fumes, dander, dust and other lung irritants can boost your risk for COPD. Protect yourself by wearing a mask. At home, consider purchasing an air purifier and a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

Know the signs
If you have any of the following symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider. Getting early treatment for COPD can help prevent further lung damage.

  • A chronic ("smoker's") cough that produces mucus
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity
  • Tightness in the chest
April 2013