The lungs have two main functions. One is to get oxygen from the air into the body. The other is to remove carbon dioxide from the body. Oxygen is needed by the body to work properly. Carbon dioxide is a waste gas the body produces when it uses oxygen.
During breathing, air enters and exits the lungs. When you breathe in (inhale), air flows through the airways into the lungs. The airways are made of stretchy tissue. Bands of muscle and other support tissue wrap each airway to help keep them open.
Air keeps flowing into the lungs until it fills tiny air sacs called alveoli. Blood circulates around these air sacs through tiny blood vessels. Oxygen crosses into the bloodstream at the place where the blood vessels and air sacs meet. This is also where carbon dioxide crosses from the bloodstream into the lungs to be breathed out (exhaled).
Aging Changes and Their Effects on the Lungs
Changes in bones and muscles of the chest and spine:
These changes in your bones and muscles result in a lower oxygen level in the blood that supplies your body. Also, less carbon dioxide is removed from your body. Symptoms such as tiredness and shortness of breath can result.
Changes in lung tissue:
These changes in lung tissue can allow air to get trapped in your lungs. Not enough oxygen enters the capillaries and less carbon dioxide is removed. This makes breathing hard.
Changes in the nervous system:
Changes in the immune system:
As a result of these changes, older persons are at increased risk of:
To decrease the effects of aging on the lungs:
As You Grow Older, You Will Have Other Changes, Including:
Minaker KL. Common clinical sequelae of aging. In: Goldman L,Schafer AI, eds. Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 24.
Sharma G, Goodwin J. Effect of aging on respiratory system physiology and immunology. Clin Interv Aging. 2006;1(3):253-260.
Janssens J-P. Aging of the respiratory system: impact on pulmonary function tests and adaptation to exertion. Clin Chest Med. 2006;26:469-484.
Updated by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.
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