Emphysema Causes

Emphysema causes permanent damage to the lungs. As lung tissue is destroyed, the surface area of the lungs is reduced, and the ability to transport oxygen between the lungs and the blood is seriously compromised. The direct cause of this damage appears to be a family of proteins referred to as proteolytic enzymes.

Proteolytic Enzymes and the Lungs

Anatomy of the Lungs - Causes of Emphysema

Proteolytic enzymes are highly specialized proteins. The primary function of proteolytic enzymes is to break down other proteins. Tissue destruction occurs when proteolytic enzymes are unusually active.

Proteolytic enzyme activity is usually controlled by antiproteolytic substances, which prevent the proteolytic enzymes from causing abnormal tissue damage. Studies of emphysema patients have revealed that the disease is usually associated with one of two imbalances. Either proteolytic enzymes are functioning at high levels of activity, or the body has a deficiency of antiproteolytic substances.

Cigarette Smoking

The chief cause of emphysema is cigarette smoking. Cigarette smoking irritates the lungs, and has been linked to heightened activity of proteolytic enzymes. Cigarette smoking also increases the chances of chronic bronchitis, which often coexists with emphysema.

Cigarette smoking affects the health of more than just smokers. Exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke has been proven to increase the risk of emphysema in nonsmokers.

Quitting Cigarette Smoking

Cigarette smoking increases your chances of developing many different lung diseases, including emphysema, lung cancer, and COPD. While many smokers are aware of these risks and want to quit, quitting cigarette smoking requires a great deal of effort.

Inherited Emphysema

Inherited forms of emphysema are rare, and most often seen in people of northern European descent. Those who inherit emphysema lack alpha-1 antitrypsin, a protein that blocks the action of proteolytic enzymes and which is usually present in the lungs. Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiencies are caused by a liver disorder that can also cause cirrhosis.

Other Risk Factors

Occupational toxins and environmental air pollution have also been linked to emphysema, although cigarette smoking still accounts for the vast majority of cases. Other diseases of the lungs, including bronchial asthma, also increase the risk of emphysema.

Men have a forty percent higher incidence rate than women, however, the number of women developing emphysema is on the rise as a wave of long-term female smokers are now approaching middle age. The risk of emphysema also increases with age, mostly because it takes years before damage to the lungs becomes apparent.