Your ability to fully expand your lungs diminishes during and after menopause, a decline that may be on par with smoking 20 cigarettes a day for 10 years, according to a recent study.
The research, published in December 2016 in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, examined lung size and the amount of air that can be exhaled in one second. Researchers found that lung capacity and air volume declined in women going through menopause beyond what would be expected through the normal aging process.
The research was conducted as part of the European Respiratory Health Survey, which examined data from more than 1,400 women over 20 years. Because the study was observational it doesn't prove menopause directly causes breathing problems.
“The hypothesis of the study is that with aging and the transition from pre- to post-menopause, women’s estrogen levels decline,” says Stephen Mathai, an associate professor of medicine in the division of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. “Estrogen protects against inflammation. So as it decreases, there is a rise in inflammation that accelerates the usual pace of lung function loss that comes with aging.”
In addition, the hormonal changes that come with menopause can cause osteoporosis, which can cause the collapse of the vertebrae, shorten the height of your spine, and limit how much air a woman can inhale.
That reduction in the ability to inhale can cause restrictive breathing problems such as shortness of breath, the authors note, rather than obstructive breathing problems that make it harder to exhale.
“This loss of lung function can be accelerated and symptoms can be more severe if you are obese or a smoker,” Mathai adds.
What you can do
If you’re a smoker, learn more about the American Lung Association’s “Freedom From Smoking” program. If you’re overweight, use our 12 expert strategies for weight loss used by people who have lost weight and kept it off.