The way the aging process affects the respiratory system is, unfortunately, about the same as how it affects other organs, which is a gradual deterioration of maximum function. Similarly to what happens to the rest of the human body with age, the aging process brings such changes to the lungs and its surroundings as stiffness and loss of elasticity, weaker muscles and shrunken airways. The result of these changes leaves your respiratory system more susceptible to breathing problems as you age.
As the aging process progresses, the chest wall loses its elasticity and becomes more rigid due to rib calcification, or calcium deposits. Respiratory muscles become weaker, most likely due to muscle mass loss within the diaphragm and the muscles between the ribs. These factors, along with the lung tissue itself losing elasticity, lead to labored breathing in older adults, especially in those who have led sedentary lives, because they are more likely to have weaker muscles.
Another change that takes place in the respiratory system as the aging process advances is in the airways. The sensory receptors in the airways, which have the job of monitoring the airways, and produce the cough reflex if it is needed to dislodge or expel something inhaled, lose their sensitivity with age. Therefore, the diminished cough reflex enables debris and irritants to reach the deep lung tissues, which can cause respiratory tract infections.
The aging process can also affect the respiratory system by causing a type of emphysema known as senile emphysema, even in those who do not smoke. This happens when the alveoli—where the actual gas exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place—lose their depth and become flatter, thereby reducing their surface area. Typically, a person will have lost about 25% of his alveolar surface area by the time he is in his 90s, which causes shortness of breath and coughing.
Fortunately you can help minimize the effects of aging on your respiratory system—much as with your cardiovascular system—by performing regular exercise. Your respiratory system is set up to carry on its functions throughout your lifetime if it does not suffer from illness, so anything you can do to help keep it running healthily will pay off when you’re in your later years.