What COPD Does to Your Heart

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Acoustic stethoscope and blood pressure gauge on an electrocardiogram printout

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease that gradually makes it harder to breathe. So it seems a bit unfair that it could be affecting your heart, too. Yet people with COPD are two to three times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than those without COPD. In fact, having COPD increases your chance of dying from a heart attack or developing heart failure.

All told, about half of deaths in people with COPD are actually caused by cardiovascular disease. So while you may be focused on taking care of your lungs, it’s important to also think about safeguarding your heart. Fortunately, there are effective ways to do both.

The COPD-Heart Connection

There are several ways that COPD can affect your heart:

  • Blood pressure. COPD can cause pulmonary hypertension, a condition characterized by high blood pressure in the arteries that carry blood from the heart to the lungs. As pressure rises, the heart has to work harder to pump out blood. Gradually, overwork may start to weaken the heart.

  • Inflammation. COPD is characterized mainly by inflamed and thickened airways, but it may also increase inflammation throughout the body. That, in turn, may speed up the development of atherosclerosis—a condition in which deposits called plaque build up inside the arteries. Over time, plaque hardens and narrows the arteries, limiting how much blood can flow through. If plaque builds up in the arteries to the heart, it can keep the heart from getting enough oxygen-rich blood.

  • Lack of oxygen. COPD can decrease the level of oxygen in the blood, and failure to get enough oxygen puts a strain on the heart.

  • Lifestyle factors. One of the reasons COPD and heart disease often go together is because they share a major risk factor: smoking. Those who smoke face a higher risk of developing both COPD and heart disease. Plus, COPD makes it harder to stay active, and lack of physical activity only adds to the heart risk.

Heart Health Risks of COPD

When plaque builds up in the arteries to the heart, it causes heart disease and could potentially lead to a heart attack. If people with COPD have a heart attack, they’re more likely to develop heart failure afterward or die within the next year, compared with heart attack patients who don’t have COPD.

Heart failure occurs when the heart’s pumping ability weakens to the point where it can no longer keep up with the body’s demands. More than 20% of people with COPD have heart failure. In fact, the chance of getting heart failure is 4.5 times higher than for people without COPD, after statistical adjustments for age and other heart risk factors.

A 2014 study in the  Journal of Thoracic Disease highlighted one more heart health concern: aortic aneurysm. In this condition, a balloon-like bulge, or aneurysm, develops in the main artery carrying blood from the heart to the rest of the body. A burst aneurysm can be deadly. The study found that people with COPD older than age 75 had a high rate of aortic aneurysm.

Taking Your Health to Heart

Although that may sound like a lot of bad news, there’s good news to offset it: Many of the treatments and lifestyle changes that help manage your COPD also help protect your heart. These include:

  • Medication. Taking your COPD medication as directed helps reduce flare-ups in the future. When needed, the combination of a bronchodilator and an inhaled steroid helps keep COPD-related inflammation in check.

  • Oxygen therapy. If severe COPD keeps you from getting enough oxygen naturally, using supplemental oxygen helps protect both your lungs and your heart. For maximum benefit, you’ll probably need to use oxygen at least 15 hours per day.

  • Pulmonary rehab. This type of medically supervised program teaches you how to exercise safely with COPD. Many rehab programs also include nutritional counseling. Staying more active and eating a healthy diet are great for your heart, too.

  • Smoking cessation. Choosing not to smoke is one of the smartest moves you can make for both your lungs and your heart. If you’re currently trying to quit, ask your doctor about tools and techniques that can help.

In short, one of the best ways to show your heart some love is by taking care of your COPD.

Key Takeaways

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a condition that affects the lungs—but it can also affect your heart health.

  • Complications and symptoms of COPD can put your heart at serious risk, and can affect your ability to recover after a heart attack.

  • Fortunately, many of the treatments and lifestyle changes that help manage your COPD also help protect your heart, including medication, oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehab, and smoking cessation.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Oct 3

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  18. Why do I need oxygen therapy? American Thoracic Society. http://www.thoracic.org/copd-guidelines/for-patients/why-do-i-need-oxygen-therapy.php

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