Spurred by suggestions that blood vessels and blood platelets may play an important role in the development of emphysema, researchers have found that regular use of aspirin may slow progression of the chronic lung disease.

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People with emphysema have shortness of breath because the alveoli – tiny air sacs in their lungs – become less efficient.

The researchers presented their findings at the 2015 American Thoracic Society International Conference in Denver on Sunday.

Emphysema is a progressive lung disease that causes shortness of breath because the alveoli – tiny air sacs in the lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged with the blood – become less efficient due to overinflation.

Nowadays, emphysema is included in a group of diseases called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis. As most people have symptoms of both chronic bronchitis or emphysema, health professionals prefer to call the disease COPD.

According to the American Lung Association, 4.7 million men and women (92% of them aged 45 and over) reported having a diagnosis of emphysema in 2011.

First author Dr. Carrie Aaron, of the Columbia University Medical Center in New York, says other than stopping or avoiding smoking, we do not know of any methods for reducing the risk of developing emphysema.

For the study, Dr. Aaron and colleagues examined data from 4,471 people taking part in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Over approximately 10 years, the participants underwent up to four CT scans to assess the percentage of lung volume showing features of emphysema. Also, 81% of them underwent spirometry tests that measured how well they could breathe.

Fast facts about COPD
  • COPD is the third leading cause of death in the US
  • Smoking is the major cause of COPD
  • Because they do not know the early warning signs, people often do not realize they have COPD until it is advanced.

Learn more about COPD

The results show that 21% of the participants were regular aspirin users, 55% were smokers or ex-smokers, and 25% of those who underwent spirometry tests had some form of airflow obstruction.

When they analyzed the results, the team found regular use of aspirin (on 3 or more days per week) was linked to a significantly slower progression of emphysema – as assessed from the CT scans – over 10 years.

The link was still there after they ruled out other factors, such as age, gender, race/ethnicity, amount and duration of smoking and high blood pressure.

When they just included ever-smokers in the analysis, the team found similar reductions in emphysema progression among regular aspirin users.

And when they included only individuals whose spirometer results showed evidence of airflow obstruction, reductions in emphysema progression were even greater.

Dr. Aaron concludes:

Our study found that persons taking aspirin regularly had a slower progression of emphysema over 10 years compared to those who did not, and that this difference was not explained by many factors that we believe affect progression of emphysema. The findings might suggest that regular aspirin use may slow the progression of subclinical emphysema, perhaps through effects on platelet activation or inflammation.”

Last year, Medical News Today reported a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found deaths from pulmonary hypertension – high blood pressure in the arteries leading from the heart to the lungs – have increased among Americans in the last 10 years.