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Treating COPD Effectively

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How COPD Affects Your Brain

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Caucasian female doctor or technician looking at brain scan

Your lungs are pretty important, to say the least. After all, they provide oxygen for every part of your body. When you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), though, your lungs take in less air than normal. This can cause the traditional symptoms of COPD: shortness of breath, coughing, and chest tightness. And now experts are starting to realize that too little oxygen may also cause problems in the brain.

COPD is linked to a higher risk for memory and thinking problems, according to new research. In fact, one study found that older adults with COPD have nearly twice the risk for memory problems.

COPD Linked to Mild Neurological Problems

A review in Respiratory Medicine looked at 15 studies on COPD and mental abilities. The subjects in these studies took tests on attention, concentration and memory. On average, the study found that people with COPD scored lower than normal. However, they scored higher than people with Alzheimer’s disease. The results suggest that the cognitive decline associated with COPD may impact everyday life, but it isn’t as severe as what one might experience with Alzheimer’s.

COPD is also linked to an increased risk of developing thinking problems over time. A study in JAMA Neurology involved nearly 1,500 older Minnesota residents. About 170 of the subjects had COPD at the start of the study. After five years, people with COPD had an 83% greater risk of developing a form of mild dementia.

Severe or Long-Term COPD Can Increase Risk  

Experts aren’t sure exactly why some people with COPD are more likely to have mental problems than others. Research suggests that these factors increase your risk for thinking difficulties:

  • Having COPD for five or more years

  • Having low levels of oxygen in your blood

  • Having severe COPD combined with poor scores on lung function tests

What COPD Does to Your Brain

There are several ways that COPD may affect thinking and memory. COPD reduces the amount of air your lungs take in, which, over time, can make your blood low in oxygen. Low levels of oxygen to the brain may cause neural damage. This could increase your risk for memory problems. One main feature of COPD is lung inflammation that can cause difficulty breathing. But COPD is also associated with inflammation of the entire body—even though you might not notice it. People with COPD have elevated levels of several body chemicals related to inflammation. And the exact same body chemicals have been linked to thinking and memory problems.  People with COPD also need more sleep than others do to feel rested. However many people with COPD have trouble falling asleep or don’t sleep well. Lack of quality sleep is linked to fatigue, and research shows a link between fatigue and mental problems.

How Thinking Problems Affect COPD

People with trouble thinking and remembering tend to have trouble following their COPD treatment plans. They are less likely to take their medication and oxygen therapy correctly. This increases the risk for a COPD flare-up.

If you have COPD, talk with your doctor if you notice problems thinking or remembering. Your doctor may be able to suggest lifestyle measures that can help keep your brain sharp. In addition, oxygen therapy may help preserve memory in people with COPD, some research suggests.  If you or a loved one has COPD, work with your doctor to develop the right COPD treatment plan.

Key Takeaways

  • COPD causes the lungs to take in less air than normal. This lack of oxygen could have a negative effect on memory and thinking.

  •  People with COPD scored lower than normal on tests that measure attention, concentration and memory.

  • Just as COPD can cause neurological problems, neurological problems may worsen COPD symptoms. When people have trouble thinking or remembering, they may have trouble sticking with their COPD treatments.

  • Talk with your doctor if you have COPD and you notice problems with your concentration or memory.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 26
View All Treating COPD Effectively Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Singh B, et al. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and association with mild cognitive impairment: the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging. Mayo Clin Proc. 2013 Nov;88(11):1222-30.
  2. McNicholas WT, et alSleep disorders in COPD: the forgotten dimension. Eur Respir Rev. 2013 Sep 1;22(129):365-75.
  3. Schou L, et al. Cognitive dysfunction in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease--a systematic review. Respir Med. 2012 Aug;106(8):1071-81.
  4. Mild Cognitive Impairment. Alzheimer’s Association.
  5. Thakur N, et al. COPD and cognitive impairment: the role of hypoxemia and oxygen therapy. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2010 Sep 7;5:263-9.
  6. Singh B, et al. A prospective study of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and the risk for mild cognitive impairment. JAMA Neurol. 2014 May;71(5):581-8.
  7. What Is COPD? National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.