Drugs & Aging

, Volume 22, Issue 12, pp 1029–1059

Overcoming Gaps in the Management of Asthma in Older Patients

New Insights
Review Article

DOI: 10.2165/00002512-200522120-00004

Cite this article as:
Barua, P. & O’Mahony, M.S. Drugs Aging (2005) 22: 1029. doi:10.2165/00002512-200522120-00004


Asthma is under-recognised and undertreated in older populations. This is not surprising, given that one-third of older people experience significant breathlessness. The differential diagnosis commonly includes asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart failure, malignancy, aspiration and infections. Because symptoms and signs of several cardiorespiratory diseases are nonspecific in older people and diseases commonly co-exist, investigations are important. A simple strategy for the investigation of breathlessness in older people should include a full blood count, chest radiograph, ECG, peak flow diary and/or spirometry with reversibility as a minimum. If there are major abnormalities on the ECG, an echocardiogram should also be performed. Diurnal variability in peak flow readings ≥20% or ≥15% reversibility in forced expiratory volume in 1 second, spontaneously or with treatment, support a diagnosis of asthma.

Distinguishing asthma from COPD is important to allow appropriate management of disease based on aetiology, accurate prediction of treatment response, correct prognosis and appropriate management of the chest condition and co-morbidities. The two conditions are usually readily differentiated by clinical features, particularly age at onset, variability of symptoms and nocturnal symptoms in asthma, supported by the results of reversibility testing. Full lung function tests may not necessarily help in differentiating the two entities, although gas transfer factor is characteristically reduced in COPD and usually normal or high in asthma. Methacholine challenge tests previously mainly used in research are now also used widely and safely to confirm asthma in clinical settings. Interest in exhaled nitric oxide as a biomarker of airways inflammation is increasing as a noninvasive tool in the diagnosis and monitoring of asthma.

Regular inhaled corticosteroids (ICS) are the mainstay of treatment of asthma. Even in mild disease in older adults, regular preventive treatment should be considered, given the poor perception of bronchoconstriction by older asthmatic patients. If symptoms persist despite ICS, addition of long-acting β2-adrenoceptor agonists (LABA) should be considered. Addition of LABA to ICS improves asthma control and allows reduction in ICS dose. However, older people have been grossly under-represented in trials of LABA, many trials having excluded those ≥65 years of age. On meta-analysis, β2-adrenoceptor agonists (both short acting and long acting) are associated with increased cardiovascular mortality and morbidity in asthma and COPD. While the evidence for excess cardiovascular mortality is stronger for short-acting β2-adrenoceptor agonists, it would be prudent to exercise particular care in using β2-adrenoceptor agonists (long acting and short acting) in those at risk of adverse cardiovascular outcomes, including older people. Regular review of cardiovascular status (and monitoring of serum potassium concentration) in patients taking β2-adrenoceptor agonists is crucial. The response to LABA should be carefully monitored and alternative ‘add-on’ therapy such as leukotriene receptor antagonists (LRA) should be considered. LRA have fewer adverse effects and in individual cases may be more effective and appropriate than LABA. Long-term trials evaluating β2-adrenoceptor agonists and other bronchodilator strategies are needed particularly in the elderly and in patients with cardiovascular co-morbidities. There is no evidence that addition of anticholinergics improves control of asthma further, although the role of long-acting anticholinergics in the prevention of disease progression is currently being researched.

Older patients need to be taught good inhaler technique to improve delivery of medications to lungs, minimise adverse effects and reduce the need for oral corticosteroids. Nurse-led education programmes that include a written asthma self-management plan have the potential to improve outcomes.

Copyright information

© Adis Data Information BV 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Academic Centre, Llandough HospitalUniversity Department of Geriatric MedicineCardiffUK
  2. 2.Academic CentreLlandough HospitalPenarthUK