Breathing, lung problems more common in low-income households

Breathing, lung problems more common in low-income households
While air quality has improved and smoking has gone down overall in the United States in the last several decades, researchers say the level of breathing problems in lower-income households remains vastly higher than in higher-income households. Photo by Free-Photos/Pixabay

May 28 (UPI) -- People with lower household incomes in the United States have more breathing problems and lung-related illnesses like asthma than wealthier individuals, an analysis published Friday by JAMA Internal Medicine found.

Nearly half of those with annual household incomes in the lowest percentiles nationally experience shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, compared with just under 30% in the highest percentiles of household income, the data showed.


In addition, low-income people are three times more likely to report a "problem cough" than their wealthier peers.

Children and adults in low-income households are also at higher risk for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than those living in wealthier homes, according to the researchers.

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These trends have generally remained the same, if not worsened, over the past 60 years, despite declines in smoking and improvements in air quality in the United States during the same period.

"From the 1960s to today, socioeconomic inequalities in lung health have persisted, and in some instances even worsened," study co-author Dr. Adam Gaffney told UPI in an email.

"This occurred despite improvements in air quality, overall smoking rates, healthcare access and workplace safety, suggesting that the benefits of these advances have not been equitably enjoyed, [so] our lungs reflect the inequalities of our society," said Gaffney, a pulmonary specialist and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass.


The findings are based on an analysis of lung health data for more than 215,000 people across the United States, for whom information on household income was available, from 1959 through 2018.

From 1971 through 2018, the percentage of people with the highest household incomes who were current or former smokers fell to 34% from 62%, the data showed.

Among those with the lowest household incomes, the percentage of current or former smokers rose to 58% from 56% over the same period, the researchers said.

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By 2018, 48% of those with the lowest household incomes nationally reported experiencing shortness of breath, up from 45% in 1971 and higher than the rate of 28% for wealthier individuals.

Just under 17% of people in the lowest-income households across the country suffered from a "problem cough" in 2018, compared with 6% of those in wealthier homes, up from 14% in 1988.

In 2017-18, the prevalence of asthma, or chronic shortness of breath, among children was 15% in the poorest households and 7% in the wealthiest ones.

Similarly, by 2018, 16% of adults in low-income households had been diagnosed with COPD, compared with just over 4% in wealthier residences.

A study published earlier this week also showed that people living in lower-income households, as analyzed by ZIP code, had more exposure to air pollution and high levels of heat.


"We all need safe air, safe workplaces and high-quality healthcare [so] we need to advocate for the policies that can make a difference," Gaffney said.

"We should move to improve air quality standards, workplace safety and achieve universal, comprehensive healthcare," he said.

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