Respiratory Health And Aging | The 50 Zone Magazine : Mens Information On Wellness, Health, Weight Loss, Nutrition, Women, Style And Fashion


Respiratory Health and Aging

by Bob Gurney

Changes associated with aging include both structural and functional aspects of the respiratory-pulmonary systems. Such changes can limit participation of older adults in both moderate and strenuous physical activity.


What are some respiratory structural changes as we move past 50 years of age?


  • Reduced alveolar elastic recoil
  • Changes in chest wall structures (bones and muscles)
  • Decreases in respiratory muscle strength
  • Reduced alveolar surface area
  • Reduced structural integrity of respiratory passages (trachea, bronchi, bronchioles)


Note: reduced or loss of alveolar elastic recoil is the most dramatic structural change, and can lead to a progressive increase in residual lung volume (RLV). RLV, also referred to as residual volume (RV) is the volume of air remaining in the lungs after a maximal expiration. RV increases in individuals with chronic obstructive lung disease and also as the anatomical structures weaken with aging.


During the normal aging process, changes are evident in maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max). What are the changes? What is the evidence of regular exercise on the aging changes of VO2 max?


VO2 max tends to decline 8% to 10% (approximately) per decade after age 30. Research studies have illustrated that these values may be as great as a 24% decline per decade after age 30. Studies have informed us that regular exercise (aerobic) training regimes demonstrate a reduction in the age-associated decline in VO2 max, and this has partially been attributed to decreases in maximal heart rate and stroke volume, thus a decrease in cardiac output.


What are the functional changes in respiratory measures with aging?


Maximal ventilation (VE max) declines with age.  However, there is a higher submaximal VO2 and VE, therefore the ventilator equivalent (VE/VO2) is higher in older adults. Changes in lung functions with older adults, make it more difficult to move air in and out of the lungs, but do not demonstrate limitations in pulmonary gas exchange. During low-moderate exercise older adults tend to increase ventilation by increasing tidal volume versus breathing frequency (more common in younger people). This increase in tidal volume may act as a compensatory mechanism to the structural-functional changes with aging.

Age related structural and functional changes are summarized as follows:

  • Increased stiffness of costo-vertebral joints (structural) may lead to increase kyphosis (functional)
  • Decrease in compliance of chest wall (structural) may lead to increased work efforts of breathing (functional)
  • Decreased size of alveoli and alveolar ducts (structural) may lead to reduced efficiencies of mixing alveolar and inspired air and decreased surface area for diffusion (functional)
  • Decreased number and thickness of elastic fibers (structural) may increase the air flow resistance in small airways, decrease in elastic recoil of lungs, decrease in vital capacity and increased residual volume (functional)


Although these structural and functional changes are inevitable with aging, healthy older individuals who engage in regular exercise have demonstrated better adaptations to the changes, versus the more sedentary older individuals.

Author: Bob Gurney


You can connect with me on Linkedin – Robert (Bob) Gurney



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