DEAR DOCTOR: I just turned 55 and have noticed that I get winded faster these days when I go running. Does getting older affect how much air your lungs can hold? Is there any way to increase it?
DEAR READER: Yes, aging does have an effect on our lungs and how they function. In fact, the decrease in capacity begins about a decade after our lungs become fully mature, which is in our early- to mid-20s.
Your question addresses something known as tidal volume, which is the amount of air that moves into and out of our lungs with each breath. For healthy adult women, tidal volume is about 0.4 liters. For men, it's about 0.5 liters. However, the volume of each breath is one of several variables that affect breathing function.
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In addition to the lungs, the respiratory system includes the diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen; it also includes the ribs, sternum and supporting muscles and soft tissues, also referred to as the thoracic cage. Each of these plays an important role in breathing. The lungs hold the air, the motion of the diaphragm causes the lungs to fill and empty, and the thoracic cage provides support and protection.
As we age, the respiratory system undergoes gradual changes that affect its structure, physiology and immune function. Injury, poor posture, osteoporosis and the natural shrinkage of bones, muscles and soft tissues all contribute to a decrease in the size of the thoracic cage. This, in turn, has an effect on maximum air volume. A decrease in the strength of the diaphragm also affects how much air can be drawn into (and out of) the lungs. The lungs themselves lose elasticity with age, and the millions of tiny air sacs that they contain, known as alveoli, can lose shape and become "baggy." Smoking and exposure to air pollution contribute to a decline in lung function. So do repeated respiratory illnesses, another reason to stay current with flu and other vaccinations.
The good news is that regular exercise can help to maintain lung function and tidal volume. Aerobic exercise is a great way to keep your lungs fit. Resistance training that targets the chest, shoulders and back muscles helps maintain strength and flexibility of the diaphragm and the thoracic cage. Breathing exercises, such as those done in yoga, are excellent tools for maintaining or increasing lung capacity. In deep breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, you breathe in through the nose to fill your lungs from top to bottom. Be sure to also breathe out as deeply as possible, so you get the maximum volume of air moving through the lungs. Adding resistance to the exhale by pursing the lips or tightening the throat is also beneficial.
It's important to remember that age-related changes to lung capacity occur gradually. If you ever experience a sudden or dramatic change to breathing, which can signal illness or injury, see your doctor right away.
Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health.