A lung condition is the third leading cause of death in the US, and 'no one's talking about it'

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is the third leading cause of death in the US behind heart disease and cancer.
  • While the condition is prevalent, it doesn’t get as much attention as other leading causes of death like cancer.
  • There aren’t as many resources being used to research and develop new approaches to treat the condition, which makes tackling the condition challenging.

When you think about the leading causes of death in the US, it’s likely that cancer and heart conditions pop into your head first.

Cancer and heart disease are indeed the two leading causes of death in the US, but they’re talked about far more than the third leading cause of death: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

The condition makes it difficult to breathe, leading to coughing and shortness of breath as it progresses. There are about 16 million people diagnosed with the condition in the US. But, according to Cheryl MacDiarmid, the senior vice president of primary care at pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, it doesn’t get as much attention as other deadly diseases.

“It’s the third leading cause of death in the US, and no one’s talking about it,” MacDiarmid said.

That’s in part because of the nature of the disease, MacDiarmid. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. About a quarter of the people who get COPD haven’t smoked, and in those cases, environmental factors like polluted air could be involved as well as certain genetic risk factors.

Treatments for respiratory conditions like COPD are a key part of GSK’s prescription drug business, and the company’s one of the only major drugmakers still working to develop treatments for COPD as companies shift their attention toward cancer.

There’s also a lot less basic research going into COPD compared to other top killers. While the National Institute of Health budgeted $US6 billion for cancer and more than $US1.3 billion for heart disease research in 2017, it budgeted just $US100 million for COPD.

That’s a problem that’s only increasing as Baby Boomers who may have smoked at one point in their life get older, MacDiarmid said. While we do know a lot more about COPD and how to treat it than we might have a decade ago, there is still a need to do basic research and find better ways to treat the condition.

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