Authored by Revere Health

Lung Function and Health as You Age

January 18, 2017 | Family Medicine

Lung health is important for all of us, and the lungs are a part of the body that experience large changes over time. Lung health at age 25 isn’t the same as lung health at age 35, and so on.

The biggest reason for this is simple: our lungs’ ability to hold air changes as we get older. For most people, the maximum lung capacity we reach in our lives is about six liters of air. Most lungs mature to this point between the ages of 20 and 25, but they don’t stay at that capacity forever, or even for very long. In most cases, changes in the body cause a decrease in lung function starting around age 35.

What are the changes you can expect, how will they affect your lungs and how can you test your lung capacity as you age? Here’s a look.

Changes to Lung Tissue

As you reach 35 or older, the tissues that keep your lungs functioning optimally can become damaged or worn down. You have air passages in your lungs that allow them to work correctly, and these passages have to be held open by muscles – these muscles can lose strength or activity as you age and cause airways to narrow or close completely.

Air interacts with your blood at a molecular level, and this can be impacted as you get older too. Normally, your blood exchanges oxygen for carbon dioxide in the blood through small sacs called alveoli. But with damage over time, the alveoli can become loose and baggy, and this exchange becomes more difficult in the bloodstream.

Changes to Muscle and Bone

The lungs themselves handle the air, but your whole chest is involved in the breathing process – especially your diaphragm.

The diaphragm is a big muscle that regulates your breathing, but just like the muscles inside your lungs, it can become weaker with age. This may limit your ability to breathe in and out effectively.

In addition, your entire rib cage needs to move for breathing to take place, and these bones can change over time. They might get thinner or lose their shape, and make breathing more 

Changes to Nervous System

The brain and its system of nerves are also vital for breathing, as they deal with sending messages between the brain and lungs. Signals from the brain to the lungs can weaken over time and nerves throughout the lungs might become less sensitive. This can lead to breathing problems or cause buildup in the lungs if nerves fail to detect dirt or other particles.

Lung Capacity Tests

There are several tests available to help determine lung capacity at a given age. The general goal is to determine how much air your lungs can hold, how well oxygen is replacing carbon dioxide, and how quickly your lungs can take in and send out air.

Some of the best lung function tests include:

  • Spirometry: By far the most common lung test, spirometry tests involve breathing into a mouthpiece attached to a spirometer. The spirometer tests several areas of lung function, from speed to overall capacity.
  • Gas diffusion: Gas diffusion tests measure how much air moves through the alveoli every minute, determining how well the lungs absorb air.
  • Inhalation challenge: A test commonly used for asthma patients, the inhalation challenge tests your lungs against irritants.
  • Exercise stress: Tests how lungs are affected by exercise.
  • Body plethysmography: Measures total lung capacity and air left in lungs after a full exhale.
  • Multiple-breath washout: This test is for people with cystic fibrosis.

Though lung function will decrease in certain situations and at certain ages, there are many preventive measures you can take to help stave off its effects. There are several tactics available to help improve lung function from your home, and general lung care and maintenance can play a major 

Schedule an appointment with our doctors at Orem Family Medicine today.



“Lung Capacity and Aging.” American Lung Association.

“Lung Function Tests.” WebMD.

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.