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Strong Thunderstorms Impact Breathing for Seniors, COPD Sufferers

Sepy2020image008A 14-year study of 46 million Medicare recipients has found that atmospheric changes preceding thunderstorms can wreak havoc on seniors with breathing ailments such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The study, the largest of its kind, tracked stormy weather and emergency room visits and found that more than 26% of patients had COPD, about 10% had asthma and nearly 7% had both. Over the course of the study, approximately 822,000 thunderstorms hit the U.S. and 22 million people visited the ER because of breathing problems. According to the data, thunderstorms were the probable cause of 52,000 of those ER visits, with most of those occurring the day before a storm.

“Changes in the atmosphere that lead up to thunderstorms, which includes increased temperatures and levels of particulate matter, coincided with increased emergency visits for breathing problems among seniors," said Dr. Christopher Worsham, the study’s author and a research fellow in the pulmonary and critical care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

The study focused on seniors, so it’s unknown if storms have the same effect on younger people with similar breathing problems. Scientists, however, do expect thunderstorms to become more intense as global temperatures continue to rise.

“Environment protects our health,” Worsham said.

Dr. Meredith McCormack, medical director of the pulmonary function lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a volunteer spokeswoman for the American Lung Association, concurs.

“While air pollution and increases in exposure to heat have been linked to exacerbations of asthma and COPD previously, considering the rapid changes in these conditions that occur in advance of thunderstorms is novel," McCormack said. “As climate change is associated with [an] increase in extreme weather events, the findings underscore the importance of adaptive strategies for those at highest risk.”

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