Racing star Danica Patrick was 10 years old when she started racing go-carts in her hometown of Roscoe, Ill., where she and her sister also stayed busy picking weeds for their grandmother. She would pay us a dollar for every 5-gallon drum full, Patrick recalls.
Childhood moments were not as carefree, however, when Patricks grandmom, who was a heavy smoker, began depending on an oxygen tank to breathe. Her doctors had diagnosed her with emphysema, a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. It was really sad to see her not being able to breathe anymore and having oxygen tanks everywhere she went, Patrick says.
Patricks grandmother died in her mid-60s, when Patrick was racing cars in England and about to turn pro. Now 28 and a seasoned pro, Patrick didnt hesitate when Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals asked her to join the fight against COPD through DRIVE4COPD, a national campaign launched last February and sponsored with NASCAR, the American Lung Association and the COPD Foundation.
COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the country, Patrick explains. Twenty-four million people are affected, and half dont even know it. Obviously someone needs to start talking about the disease and raise awareness.
COPD is an umbrella for two progressive diseasesemphysema and chronic bronchitisboth primarily caused by smoking.
In chronic bronchitis, the breathing tubes of the lungs become inflamed so that its difficult to get air out of the lungs, says Dr. Brian Carlin, a spokesman for DRIVE4COPD and a senior staff physician in the Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Division at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. (The tubes) are like a hose that gets compressed in the middle.
Emphysema occurs when the damaged lungs air sacs, normally like buoyant balloons, no longer can fill easily with and release air, Carlin says.
A persons lungs can lose 50 percent of their capacity before symptoms of COPDcoughing, wheezing, shortness of breatheven appear. Catching COPD early is where we need to focus, Carlin says. You can slow progression. The key is to stop smoking.
Exercise30 minutes of brisk activity, such as walking five times a weekwill help keep the muscles of the chest wall healthy so that the lungs can fill and empty more easily. And physicians can prescribe medications such as bronchodilators that relax bronchial airways or inhaled steroids that reduce inflammation so that breathing becomes more comfortable.
COPD is very treatable, says Carlin, noting that preventive measures such as flu shots can help keep damaged lungs healthier. People who have COPD are more prone to influenza, pneumonia and H1N1. So they need to stay away from people with colds and coughs.
The DRIVE4COPD campaign is promoted at NASCAR races, other sporting events and country music concerts, and aims to screen 1 million people for the lung disease through a simple five-question test that people can take at an event or on the campaigns website, www.DRIVE4COPD.com. One question asks if youve smoked 100 cigarettes in your lifetime, enough to put you at risk. Another asks your age, and the other three check for symptoms, including shortness of breath.
Theres lots of smoking at these kinds of outdoor events, Patrick says. So, they are good places to raise awareness of COPD.
The screening score indicates only that you might be at risk for the condition and should see a doctor. Since February, the campaign has screened 145,500 people and, of those, 17 percent were at risk for COPD.
We did an event in Boston, and there was a woman who quit smoking many years ago, but she was feeling short of breath climbing stairs, says Emily Baier, a spokeswoman for Boehringer Ingelheim. She didnt think she was at risk for COPD because she had quit smoking many years ago. But she took the screening and realized that she needed to see her doctor.
Patrick is certain that her grandmother would be proud of her drive for a cure. She would say that she wishes she had known more about COPD when she was younger. We all like to brush off symptoms as if theyre just a matter of getting old or not being physically fit. But (treating the disease) can extend your life and make it more livable. You want to check into it.