FRIDAY, June 15, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a common, often fatal lung disease in smokers, can also stiffen arteries, new British researcher shows.
The effect was especially strong in COPD patients who also suffered from osteoporosis, they add.
While COPD remains incurable and very difficult to treat, "we are learning more about the problems associated with the disease, and new treatments are likely to follow," said study co-author Dr. Dennis Shale, a lung specialist at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom.
COPD, the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, kills by slowly closing off a person's airways due to a combination of emphysema and chronic bronchitis. The disease typically occurs in smokers, and scientists think it is caused by inflammation stemming from long-term smoking or other irritants.
In the new study, researchers looked at two groups of people, 75 with COPD and 42 people -- both smokers or ex-smokers -- who did not have COPD or heart disease.
The findings are published in the second issue for June of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
Tests suggested that the arteries of the lung disease patients were "stiffer" than those of the other subjects, the researchers report, and arteries deteriorated more as patients got sicker. Stiff or "hardened" arteries -- a condition called atherosclerosis -- can restrict or even cut off blood flow, increasing risks for heart attack and stroke.
Atherosclerosis appeared to be especially advanced in the 18 lung disease patients in the study who suffered from the bone-weakening condition known as osteoporosis.
Scientists still don't understand exactly how COPD and heart disease might be related. But, Shale said, the study, "adds a piece to the jigsaw puzzle, by showing that there is a relationship between the severity of lung disease and stiffness in the aorta, the main artery leading from the heart to the rest of the body."
The research also suggests that inflammation plays a major role, he said.
As for osteoporosis, Shale said the research suggests that COPD may cause premature aging by quickening the decline of both bones and arteries.
Dr. Peter Calverley, a professor of respiratory medicine at The University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, who's familiar with the study findings, said the research adds to existing knowledge by linking both heart disease and osteoporosis to COPD.
He agreed that these conditions could be related to an inflammatory signal that arises from the lungs. The bottom line, according to Calverley, is that doctors and patients should know that this type of lung disease is "a good marker for other bad stuff." That means that doctors treating COPD should also look for both heart and bone disease in patients.
The next step, he said, is to figure out exactly how lung disease might cause other problems. "If we understood that, we might be able to change it," he said.
To learn more about COPD, visit the American Lung Association.