WEDNESDAY, May 24, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- While the number of Americans hospitalized each year for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) appears to be holding steady, new research suggests the number of patients dying in the hospital over the past decade has decreased.
"This is certainly an encouraging trend," said study author Dr. Khushboo Goel, a second-year internal medicine resident at the University of Arizona.
COPD is an umbrella term for the lung diseases chronic bronchitis and emphysema, with smoking being a major cause of the tough-to-treat illness.
In 2014, close to 16 million Americans said they'd been diagnosed with COPD, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease is the third-leading cause of death in the United States, the agency noted.
The new findings come after an analysis that looked at 2005-2014 data collected in a major survey of U.S. hospitalized patients after discharge.
The data revealed that nearly 8.6 million Americans were hospitalized for issues related to COPD over that time frame, with little fluctuation over the years. Patients averaged 67 years of age.
However, the annual number of patients who died from COPD while in the hospital plummeted over those years by 62 percent -- from a high of about 24,000 to just over 9,000.
"We expected to see a decline because of improvements in caring for conditions such as pneumonia, sepsis, septic shock and thromboembolic [clotting] diseases associated with COPD exacerbations," Goel said in a news release from the American Thoracic Society. "But the magnitude of the decline in mortality was surprising."
What's more, declining death trends were seen across all racial groups, the researchers added.
Still, there were some disparities. Women were both more likely to be hospitalized and more likely to die from COPD than men, Goel's team found. Specifically, women accounted for up to 58 percent of hospitalizations and 55 percent of inpatient deaths.
"Other studies suggest possible explanations for the higher COPD burden women in the U.S. have," said Goel, "including the growing number of women who smoke, the increased severity of symptoms they may experience and longer life expectancy."
One specialist in respiratory care called the improvements in COPD in-hospital survival "extremely gratifying."
"The reduction in mortality is particularly striking as I might expect that the severity of illness of those patients admitted for COPD more recently would be -- if anything -- higher, as we are now able to provide more and more sophisticated care at home for these patients," explained Dr. Steven Feinsilver.
He's a pulmonary expert at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Feinsilver credits the improvements on recent advances in hospitals' imaging and ventilator technologies, as well as advances in fighting infections, clotting and other complications.
As for women's poorer survival compared to men, Feinsilver noted that "for any given level of smoking women appear to have more impairment of lung function from COPD than men.
"Many do not realize that COPD accounts for more deaths in women than breast cancer and lung cancer combined," he said.
The findings were to be presented Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Thoracic Society, in Washington, D.C. Findings presented at medical meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
There's more on COPD at the COPD Foundation.