05/20/2014 06:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Chronic Shortness Of Breath Linked With Increased Death Risk

By Liza Baskin

People can experience shortness of breath at high altitudes or after intense exercise. But shortness of breath also can be a sign of an underlying health issue with serious consequences.

A recent study found that people with chronic shortness of breath, also known as dyspnea, were more likely to die from any cause after 12 years than people who did not have dyspnea.

The researchers believe that identifying the underlying causes of dyspnea — which could be lung or heart disease in some cases — may help doctors and patients reduce the risk of death linked to this condition.

The lead author of this study was Gene Pesola, MD, MPH, from Columbia University in New York, New York.

The study included 11,746 adults between the ages of 18 and 75 years old, who were recruited between 2000 and 2002 from rural Bangladesh.

The researchers determined dyspnea status at enrollment with a health questionnaire.

The participants were followed for up to 12 years.

The findings showed that 782 deaths occurred over the study period.

Compared to the participants who did not have dyspnea at the beginning of the study (baseline), those with dyspnea at baseline were 2.73 times more likely to die during the study period.

After adjusting for risk factors such as blood pressure, body mass index (height to weight ratio), smoking, education, age, gender and arsenic concentrations in the participants’ drinking water, those with dyspnea had a 2.10-fold increased risk of dying from any cause.

The participants who smoked cigarettes were 58 percent more likely to die than the participants who did not smoke.

When the researchers limited their analysis to the participants who did not smoke cigarettes, the nonsmokers with dyspnea were 1.9 times more likely to die than the nonsmokers who did not have dyspnea.

The findings revealed that the male participants were 68 percent more likely to die than the female participants.

An abnormal body mass index was associated with a 38 percent increased risk of death.

"Dyspnea may be a sign of lung disease, heart disease, or a number of other potentially life-threatening conditions," Dr. Pesola said in a press statement. "Identifying the underlying causes of dyspnea in these individuals might offer an opportunity to reduce the high risk of [death] associated with this condition."

This study was presented on May 19 at the 2014 American Thoracic Society International Conference.