Victoria Barron, left, measures Johanna Hall's lung capacity using a spirometer. Barron, a registered nurse and certified asthma educator at the Visiting Nurse Association, administers the free tests to help patients gauge their lung health.

Tamera Manzanares

Victoria Barron, left, measures Johanna Hall's lung capacity using a spirometer. Barron, a registered nurse and certified asthma educator at the Visiting Nurse Association, administers the free tests to help patients gauge their lung health.

Aging well: VNA programs aim to improve, protect lung health

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Pulmonary health services

• Drop-in pulmonary health clinics are from noon to 4 p.m. Mondays at the VNA in Steamboat Springs, (940 Central Park Drive, Suite 101).

The clinic includes free pneumonia vaccines for low-income, uninsured patients, free basic lung screenings as well as consultations for asthma management and tobacco cessation. These services also are available by appointment. For more information, call 879-1632.

• Pneumonia and other vaccines are available from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays at the Steamboat VNA.

• Pulmonary health services are available at the Craig VNA by appointment. For more information, call 824-8233 or visit the office at 745 Russell St.

Tobacco cessation support

• The Colorado QuitLine offers free coaching and nicotine patches. Call 1-800-784-8669 or visit www.coquitline.or...>

• The Visiting Nurse Association also provides free Quit Kits (patches or gum not included) and ongoing support.

A lack of medical insurance or funds shouldn't be barriers to better lung health.

Unfortunately, older adults, who have the highest incidence of conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, often are among those living on very limited incomes.

That's why the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association offers free and/or low cost pulmonary health services to those whose health needs outweigh their ability to pay.

"We're trying to reach people who don't have access to good medical care," said Janice Poirot, VNA public health nurse.

Pneumonia vaccines, basic lung function screening, as well as asthma and tobacco cessation consultations, are available during weekly clinics at the Steamboat VNA and by appointment in Craig and Steamboat.

The vaccine is free to low income, uninsured residents of all ages (otherwise it is $35). Lung screenings and consultations are free to everyone, though sliding-scale fees may apply to ongoing screenings and support.

Taking control

Once a person knows the truth about their health, they can begin managing their conditions and lifestyles for a better quality of life.

Lung screenings involve a small device called a spirometer, which measures how much air a person breathes in and out of their lungs. The device uses the measurement to estimate a smoker's "lung age."

"That kind of information can be very motivating," Poirot said.

Smoking damage doesn't have to be permanent: Lung function begins to improve within three months of quitting smoking while shortness of breath and coughing decrease within nine months, according to reports by the U.S. Surgeon General.

A person's risk of coronary heart disease, lung cancer and stroke declines significantly within 15 years of being smoke-free.

The VNA's tobacco cessation program and the Colorado QuitLine provide free coaching to individuals working to quit smoking. Regular spirometry screenings help gauge their progress.

"The sooner you stop, the better chance you have of turning it around," said Victoria Barron, a registered nurse who provides lung screenings and pulmonary health education at the VNA.

The free lung screenings, made possible by a grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Education, also help patients with chronic pulmonary conditions such as COPD and asthma manage their health.

Anyone experiencing problems such as shortness of breath and persistent cough also should get their lungs screened. Although Barron does not diagnose conditions, she can refer patients to their doctor or an affordable health clinic for further tests and analysis.

Asthma, a common lung disease, can develop in a person at any age. Although it cannot be cured, asthma can be managed with medication and devices such as inhalers. Barron, a certified asthma educator, makes sure patients know how to correctly use treatments and avoid triggers such as pollens.

"If they are managed well, they can have a great life and healthy lifestyle," Barron said.

Recommended vaccines

Protecting our lungs from dangerous infections is an important part of maintaining healthy lungs, especially for older individuals.

Pneumonia, a lung ailment signaled by fever, chest pain, cough and chills, is the most common of infections known as pneumococcal disease. The family of bacteria that cause pneumonia also cause meningitis - an infection of the brain covering - and other serious infections.

Overall, pneumococcal disease, spread by droplets in the air, kills more people in the U.S. than all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 5 to 7 percent of people who contract pneumonia die from the infection, though the fatality rate may be much higher among the elderly.

The pneumococcal vaccine protects against 23 types of bacteria including those that cause pneumonia and meningitis. Although it is not 100 percent effective, it significantly lowers the risk of pneumococcal disease in most recipients, according to the Immunization Action Coalition, which is dedicated to vaccination education.

The CDC recommends adults 65 and older, including residents of long-term care facilities, receive the vaccine, as well as adults and children two and older who have chronic conditions such as diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, cirrhosis and alcoholism.

The risk of pneumococcal disease also is higher among patients with illnesses that weaken immunity, such as HIV and AIDS, lymphoma, leukemia and kidney failure.

Last year, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices determined that smokers and people with asthma also are at a higher risk of pneumococcal disease and should receive the vaccine. It's the first time a vaccine has been recommended for smokers, Poirot said.

A person usually only needs to be vaccinated once, unless they are 65 or older, at which time they should receive another dose of the pneumococcal vaccine (as long as at least five years have passed since the last dose), according to CDC recommendations.

Merck, which produces the vaccine, sponsors the VNA's free pneumococcal vaccination program through its vaccine patient assistant program. Medicare and Medicaid part B also will cover the vaccine cost for eligible patients.

This article contains information from "Effect of Smoking on Arterial Stiffness and Pulse Pressure Amplification," a report by A. Mahumud and J. Feely.

Tamera Manzanares can be reached at tammarie74@yahoo.com.

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