Researchers from the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy in Gothenburg, Sweden, studied the relationship between chronic shortness of breath and more serious health issues like heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
They found that early intervention decreases hospitalization rates and helps patients avoid suffering.
“The fact that people do not seek medical advice for their breathlessness is often due to people associating their symptoms with the natural process of aging. But if you notice that you experience increased shortness of breath during exertion, you should seek medical attention,” Nasser Ahmadi, a researcher at the Sahlgrenska Academy and a specialist in cardiology and general medicine at Capio Medical Center in Orust, Sweden, said in a news release.
Shortness of breath, also called dyspnea, has many causes affecting the breathing passages and lungs, or the heart or blood vessels. In the case of shortness of breath that has lasted for weeks or longer, the condition is considered chronic and is most often due to COPD or asthma.
As part of his doctoral studies, Ahmadi examined research studies on chronic breathlessness. One population-based study had 1,000 participants, of the studies he examined about 1,000 patients, and another study had 100 patients who were seeking medical help for shortness of breath.
The studies were focused on chronic breathlessness in adults rather than acute shortness of breath, which comes on within a few days and should be treated right away. The study participants sought help from primary care doctors after suffering from the symptoms for at least six weeks.
“The patients who sought care for chronic breathlessness appeared to have a significantly impaired quality of life than the general population. They often had major problems completing everyday tasks,” Ahmadi said. “They suffered from different underlying diseases like a potential heart failure or a hidden obstructive lung disease that was developing.”
Chronic shortness of breath is an equally significant warning signal for high blood pressure, Ahmadi said, noting that for appropriate early detection and correct medication, there is a need for effective models in primary healthcare to identify which individuals are at risk of chronic breathlessness.
“My point is that the faster we identify these patients, the better prognoses we will have and the lighter the load on the healthcare system later on,” he said. “Shortness of breath is often a sign of heart or lung disease because these two organs are most closely involved in the respiratory system.”
Ahmadi said most studies on shortness of breath have been focused on hospitalization rather than in primary healthcare settings.
“In Sweden, few studies have been conducted in the primary care, which plays a central role in taking care of these patients,” he said.
Evidence from previous studies has shown that one in every three adults over age 65 in Sweden suffers from breathlessness when they exert themselves. But it remains a challenge to differentiate poor general fitness from chronic shortness of breath.
“Very often, the patient recognizes that something is not right,” Ahmadi said. “People can compare their health with how it was previously. After all, one is his own best health reference. What was I like a year ago? Was I able to do just as much or have things become considerably worse? If it is the latter, people should seek medical attention, even if you are over the age of 65 or 70.”