Lung function — and specifically the amount of air you can blow out — is a highly accurate predictor of how long you will live. "A poor readout in a breathing test or a steep decline over time is like a yellow light flashing in your car," says Dr. Neil Schachter, a pulmonologist at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Researchers aren't sure why the lungs play such an important role. But it could be that lungs suffer the brunt of all the bad things happening in our other systems. The same deterioration of connective tissues, elastin, and collagen that ages the arteries also ages the lungs and reduces the amount of air we can take in and blow out. And just like in our brains, inflammation can invade our lungs, causing the tiny air sacs, the alveoli, to contract, narrowing airways and reducing airflow.
We also know that piling on extra weight creates a tremendous, and dangerous, pulmonary drag. Florida businessman Dan Hernandez, 49, had anemic lung test results, but when he overhauled his diet and exercise routine to drop 50 pounds, his numbers shot up to optimal. "I was able to oxygenate my blood to athletic levels," he says. His physician, Steven Masley, explains: "When you gain weight, the chest wall gets thicker, and the lungs have to expand against more resistance. If you can pinch three or four inches of fat on the sides of your chest, how are you supposed to take a deep breath?"
The test we now use to measure lung function is based on an innovation from the 1840s. Back then, patients would breathe through a tube to move a spirometer, or a bell jar submerged in water. The more air they could breathe out, the higher the bell jar rose. That's still the essence of today's spirometric test: You breathe as hard as you can into a mouthpiece that calculates the total amount of air you can expel in one second; this is called your FEV1. That result is your lifespan crystal ball, and in most of us, it declines by 1 to 2 percent a year. "In a perfect world, everyone would check his FEV1 twice a year," Raffaele says. "If you make any change in diet or exercise and your lung function numbers improve, you know that's it's working."
How to Lower Your Pulmonary Age
Drop Extra Weight
This is the simplest way to unburden the lungs.
Limit Dirty Air
Secondary cigarette smoke is a land mine for anyone, and new research suggests that exercising outdoors when air pollution is high may wipe out the brain benefits of your workout. Anyone who suffers from asthma or any kind of reduced lung function should take a pass on exercising outside on smoggy, sooty, or especially humid days. If, in pulmonary terms, you're already playing with a bad hand, you'll need to shore up lung capacity to last into your eighties and beyond.
Eat to Reduce Inflammation
Foods rich in omega-3s, like fish and nuts, along with those high in antioxidants — colorful veggies, berries, and greens — can counter systemic inflammation and may diminish the chance of contracting chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) later in life. And gram for gram, no food beats the anti-inflammatory effects of spices like turmeric, rosemary, and ginger.
Practice belly breathing, or breathing from the diaphragm — press your belly out when you breathe in, and pull the belly in as you breathe out — to keep the lungs and the chest muscles supple and strong and to oxygenate the tissues in the body fully. Yoga and Pilates can also help improve posture, allowing more air to move in and out.
Here is your guide to assessing — and slowing — everything from your cognitive age to your metabolic decline.