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Lung Health & Ageing: How Your Lifestyle Affects Your Lungs

Residents in a pool

As you get older, your body goes through changes that affect your lungs, muscles, and bones, all of which play a role in how you breathe


Your lungs can hold about six litres of air at their maximum capacity, which is roughly the size of three large bottles of soft drink. 

They mature by the time you're in your early-to-mid-20s and, as you pass your mid-30s, lung function starts to gradually decline. This can make breathing feel harder over time. 


Several changes in your body can contribute to a decline in lung capacity:

  • The alveoli - the tiny air sacs in the lungs - may lose their elasticity which reduces their ability to efficiently exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide.

  • The diaphragm - the primary muscle involved in breathing - can weaken over time. This weakening can result in a decreased ability to inhale and exhale which is particularly noticeable when exercising or doing a strenuous activity.

  • The ribcage bones can become thinner and change shape. This limits lung capacity as it affects the ribcage's ability to expand and contract as effectively while breathing.

  • The nerves within the airways that trigger the coughing reflex become less sensitive. This leads to a build up of foreign particles in the lungs that can damage lung tissue over time.

  • The immune system can weaken, making people more susceptible to respiratory infections such as the flu and pneumonia.


Some common lung diseases among older adults include asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer. In people who do not have lung disease, a lot of these changes are actually due to changes in cardiovascular health and muscle strength, rather than changes to the lungs themselves.


Lifestyle changes you can make to improve your lung health

There are several things you can do to protect your lungs and promote better lung function throughout your life.


Weight Management:

Being overweight can exacerbate symptoms such as breathlessness, making everyday activities like climbing stairs or carrying groceries more challenging. Excess weight also places stress on the body, affecting lung function and increasing the risk of conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Consulting with a registered dietitian can assist you in devising a personalised plan to manage weight effectively.



People who have chronic lung problems require more energy to support respiratory function. Research suggests they may use 25-50% more energy than those without due to the increased work needed to breathe. Therefore, maintaining a healthy diet is crucial for keeping energy levels high.

Some lung conditions may also influence appetite. Individuals may experience a decreased appetite as eating becomes more challenging, while others may have an increased appetite due to medications such as steroids. It's essential to work closely with your healthcare team to adapt your diet accordingly to ensure your nutritional needs are being met.


Physical Activity:

Engaging in regular physical activity offers numerous benefits. It can help decrease feelings of breathlessness by helping improve lung capacity, making daily living activities more manageable. Physical activity also assists in clearing mucus in your lungs by promoting deeper breathing, thus facilitating easier breathing. Attending group exercise classes is a great way to stay motivated to exercise.



There's no "safe" level of smoking. It can make significant changes to your lungs and airways. Over time, it weakens your body's ability to fight off infections and can leave you with a chronic cough, difficulty breathing, and a buildup of mucus in your lungs which can lead to serious health conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, and lung cancer. Changing habits can be challenging, but it is never too late to give up smoking. Not only can quitting significantly reduce the risk of developing lung disease, it can also decrease the risk of 11 other cancers, heart attack and stroke.


We hope to improve the health and well-being of our communities and ensure that everyone has the support they need to be Better for life! If you would like to learn more about the services we offer, visit one of our locations or give us a call on 1800 852 772.