Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects one of five people older than age 45 years, but only 44% of all adults understand it can be treated.

A national survey of physicians and consumers commissioned by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) reflects the news that COPD awareness is rising among the public: 68% of adults are now aware of the disease, compared with 64% last year and 49% in a 2004 survey.

Eight out of 10 COPD cases are caused by smoking; other environmental exposures or genetics are responsible for the remainder. About half of all 24 million cases in the United States are undiagnosed despite recognizable symptoms.

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“Awareness is an important first step,” affirms James P. Kiley, PhD, director of the NHLBI’s division of lung diseases, in a statement describing the survey results. But, he cautioned, awareness is not enough. “People at risk of developing the disease need to know what the disease looks and feels like, and most important, to understand that it can be treated.”

The key, according to Dr. Kiley, is for people to get tested and start treatment as soon as possible. Approximately nine out of 10 primary-care practitioners responding to the NHLBI survey agreed that available treatments can optimize quality of life for COPD patients.