Asbestos, Lung Health and Seniors – What Should You Know?

By Lively

Some changes to the body, such as the stiffening of joints, are to be expected as we age, but there are several aspects of aging that are often overlooked. In honor of November being Lung Cancer Awareness Month, now is a great opportunity to familiarize oneself with the health risks associated with asbestos. A naturally occurring mineral, asbestos has a negative effect on lung health and affects older generations more than any other.

The aging population is the most at risk of developing a respiratory illness as a result of exposure to asbestos due to the historical use of the mineral. It was commonly used in building materials through the late 1970s due to its ability to resist heat, fire and electricity. Although it is a known carcinogen, the toxin is still legal in the United States and has been linked to a variety of illnesses, including lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.

Due to its prevalence in construction, the toxin can still be found in floor/ceiling tiles, insulation, furnaces, paneling and cements in homes and buildings nationwide. Its existence in residential and commercial spaces puts people at an increased risk of exposure because asbestos particles are dangerous after being disturbed and released into the air. Once inhaled, the microscopic fibers embed in the lining of the body’s organs and cancers like mesothelioma can develop in the heart (pericardial), abdominal cavity (peritoneal) or, most commonly, the lungs (pleural), which accounts for 70 to 90 percent of all diagnoses.

Although many people have heard of mesothelioma, awareness is low and few fully understand the intricacies of the disease. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for mesothelioma and the cancer is difficult to detect as symptoms do not manifest until 10 to 50 years following asbestos exposure, which makes seniors the most at-risk age group.

Detecting mesothelioma is further complicated by the variety of symptoms associated. Each form of the disease presents symptoms specific to the location of the cancer. For instance, peritoneal mesothelioma involves stomach pain, swelling and weight loss, while pleural mesothelioma can lead to chest pain, fluid buildup and shortness of breath. The difference of presentation, coupled with the high risk of misdiagnosis in the earliest stages, makes it difficult for medical professionals to pinpoint the cause of a patient’s discomfort.

Late stage diagnosis is problematic because a patient’s prognosis worsens as the disease progresses. If a patient receives an accurate diagnosis in the first stage of the illness, he or she is expected to live for 1.5 to 3 years following diagnosis. By the fourth stage, however, the cancer has often spread throughout the body and patients have a prognosis of 12 months. Early detection is integral because once mesothelioma has progressed into the third and fourth stages, viable treatment options are very limited, leaving palliative care as one of the only remaining options for patients.

Being aware of the health risks associated with asbestos and communicating with your doctor if you feel you may have been exposed is the best way to ensure you receive appropriate and accurate medical care. If the source of your exposure involves neglect from decades past, it may be worth exploring legal and financial assistance to learn more about coping with the treatment and the expenses often coupled with it.

Early detection is paramount in ensuring a good prognosis and due to the high risk of misdiagnosis, consulting a doctor could be lifesaving. By taking control of your health and having a frank discussion with your doctor, you could save your own life.

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