You might have heard of people with “childhood asthma” who have outgrown the condition as they reached adulthood. This anecdotal phenomenon suggests the reduced tendency for asthma as people age. But there is more to the story than meets the eye.
Although asthma may seem to improve during adulthood, it comes back with a vengeance during later years. In actuality, asthma in the elderly is thought to be underreported. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) often shares symptoms with asthma, which may then be misdiagnosed as COPD. Contrary to popular belief, advancing age is associated with a greater tendency for asthma (Hopp, et al, 1985). Immunosenescence, the phenomenon that describes how one’s immune system declines in function as one ages, may help explain why the elderly are more predisposed to asthma.
Because of immunosenescence, a person in his golden years will not be able to fend off infections as effectively as during his youth. Since respiratory infections are a known trigger for asthma, there is increased predisposition to asthma in advanced age.
There is another component of immunosenescence, dubbed inflamm-aging, that may contribute to a higher risk for asthma among the elderly (Boren, 2004). Inflamm-aging connotes chronic inflammation, usually found in “sickly” people in their seniors. This sustained state of inflammation may contribute to the inflammatory component of asthma.
In addition, specific allergies, such as those to cockroaches, dust mites, and other indoor allergens, are linked to asthma in the elderly more so than in children.