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Organ Health Spotlight in Time for a Healthy New Year

The winter season is filled with resolutions, analysis, and momentum. Often times, self-reflection and projection can be stressful and chaotic, but motivating nonetheless. In addition to basking in the charm of the new year, it is also a time to consider overall health and particularly, lung health.

Lung diseases as a whole account for roughly four million deaths per year. In 29 years, between 1988 and 2017, there have been a total of 718,569 organ transplants performed. Approximately 35,606 of these were lung transplants. As of today, there are 1,375 candidates in the United States waiting to receive a healthy lung. Considering that the average person breathes in roughly 13 pints of air every minute, healthy lung function is critical to overall quality of life. Common factors that can affect your lung health are both your environment and your genetic makeup.

 The air that we inhale can transmit much more than the common cold or flu. Your environment, both indoors and outdoors, has a direct impact on healthy lung function and the chances of becoming diagnosed with a specific lung disease. For instance, your friend who loves to chat with you while smoking a cigarette. That smoke is not just harming their lungs, the smoke is harming yours too. Secondhand smoke exposure was responsible for more than 7,300 lung cancer deaths among adults between 2005 and 2009. However, more often than not, we are actually unaware of the toxins that we inhale, such as particulate matter (PM). The toxin is a widespread air pollutant comprising of solid and liquid particles suspended in the air. Sources of particulate pollution can include dust, ash, and soot. The pollution is primarily produced by power plants, big industries, and vehicles. The particles are deadly and can impair overall lung function.

 During winter months, indoor air while indoors either at home or in your workplace is the last place that you assume a risk of any kind. Unfortunately, that is not the case for toxins. Radon enters the home through the walls, foundation or cracks in the floors. When inhaled, the particles can damage the cells that line the lungs. According to The World Health Organization, exposure to radon is estimated to cause three to 14 percent of the lung cancer cases in most countries. Another toxin that is no stranger to the home, is asbestos.

 Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber, primarily used in the construction of residential and commercial buildings between the 1930’s and 1970’s. When asbestos is disturbed, the particles are released into the air and become hazardous. Once inhaled, the asbestos fibers embed themselves in the lining of the lungs where mesothelioma cancer may eventually develop. However, you don’t have to have worked with asbestos to be at risk.

 A prime example of secondhand exposure to asbestos is Heather Von St. James, a 12-year mesothelioma survivor, who was diagnosed at 36-years-old. Heather was exposed to the deadly asbestos dust by regularly wearing her father’s coat as a child. She was breathing in the dust for years.

 In addition to environmental influences, which play a strong role in the health of our lungs, our genetic makeup contributes to our chances of developing lung disease. An individual may not be born with a disease but could have a higher risk of acquiring it, otherwise known as genetic predisposition or susceptibility. For some lung diseases, genes play a big role, such as cystic fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension. The environment can also interact with a person’s genes and contribute to lung diseases, called environmental triggers.

Although genetic disposition to diseases is not-so-great news, genes are a double-edged sword. They also play a positive and essential role in organ donation – gene matching is used to better pair donated organs with their recipients. For example, genome analyzing technologies can noninvasively detect organ rejection using the DNA from the donor. Advancements like these help contribute to the increasing success of organ transplants.

Despite the medical advancements to date, the supply of organs needs to catch up with the demand. There are 22 people who die each day while waiting for a new organ. In the United States, 95 percent of adults support organ donation, but roughly half that number actually donates. Donating an organ makes it possible for people like 27-year-old Anna, who suffers from a lung disease called Cystic Fibrosis (CF), to receive a life-saving transplant. “Thank you to my beautiful donor,” said Anna. “[Through] their selfless gift I have been given another chance!” Now she and her sister are working towards CF and organ donation awareness.

Starting off 2018 being mindful of your environment and dedicating a portion of your attention to safeguarding your lung health can go a long way when it comes to wellness. While the air we breathe feeds us the oxygen we need to survive, it can also feed us toxins which can lead to lung diseases and cancer. Additionally, it’s wise to consider your family history and your predisposition to specific lung diseases. Educating yourself on both your environment and your genetic makeup can help in the prevention of all diseases, not just lung diseases. Finally, keep organ health in mind for those who are on a transplant list, to provide a gift that is truly priceless.