ROI Press Release: People with serious breathing difficulties set to increase by 40% by 2020

26 Jan 2011

Health Services must plan for increased demand on services

The number of people in the Republic of Ireland living with serious breathing difficulties (chronic airflow obstruction) is expected to rise by 40% by 2020, according to new research by the Institute of Public Health in Ireland (IPH).

In 2007 it is estimated that nearly 94,000 adults (2.8% of the population) had serious breathing difficulties. By 2020 this is expected to rise to over 131,000 (3.1%) – an additional 38,000 adults and 40% increase – in less than 15 years.

In Northern Ireland in 2007 it is estimated that nearly 46,000 adults (3.3%) had serious breathing difficulties. By 2020 this is expected to rise to nearly 56,000 (3.7%) – an additional 10,000 adults and 21% increase – in less than 15 years.

In both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland it is more common in deprived areas.
The research relates to a lung condition called chronic airflow obstruction that interferes with normal breathing. Chronic airflow obstruction is linked with other conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. These conditions are a leading, and increasing, cause of death, reduced quality of life and health inequalities. For example, COPD is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide and it is predicted to become the third leading cause of death within the next 10 to 20 years.

IPH Research Analyst Steve Barron said: “The dramatic rise in chronic airflow obstruction will result in a significant increase in demand for our already strained health and social care services, and an additional financial burden to our economy through lost productivity. Unless we can address this rise in chronic airflow obstruction, increasing life expectancy may only add years of illness to our lives,” he said.

Health Service Executive (HSE) Specialist in Public Health Medicine, Máire O’Connor, said the IPH research would be useful to inform the planning of services: “By providing current and projected patient numbers at national and Local Health Office level, the Institute’s report provides key data for planning, monitoring and targeting local, regional and national health services to halt, and even reverse, the projected increases in this leading cause of disability and death and health inequality.”

Reducing smoking key to reducing number of sufferers

Smoking is the main risk factor for chronic airflow obstruction with an estimated 85% of sufferers having a history of cigarette smoking.

Mr Barron said: “The most important interventions are to prevent people starting smoking and to support them to stop smoking. The ban on smoking in indoor public places and workplaces was a good first step and we should continue to build on this. IPH encourages further tobacco-control policies and programmes with a clear and consistent non-smoking message,” he said.

Lead of Northern Ireland’s Respiratory Health and Wellbeing Service Framework Dr Jenny Gingles highlighted the critical importance of stopping smoking, particularly among more disadvantaged groups: “Once Chronic Airflow Obstruction develops the best way of preventing it getting worse is to stop smoking. This will prevent ill health and premature death, particularly in people who suffer higher levels of socio-economic deprivation.”

Further findings from the research include:

  • Chronic airflow obstruction is more common among males than females. In 2007, the prevalence rate among males was nearly 50% higher than among females.
  • The prevalence of chronic airflow obstruction increases with age. In 2007 about one in twelve adults aged 75 years and over were living with the condition. In 2020 relatively more of the adults living with the condition will belong in the older age groups.
  • In 2007 chronic airflow obstruction tended to be most common in Belfast and its surrounds and in some parts of Dublin.
  • In 2007 chronic airflow obstruction prevalence was generally higher in the most deprived areas.
  • In 2007 chronic airflow obstruction prevalence was higher in Northern Ireland than in the Republic of Ireland. North-South differences in the current and future prevalence are chiefly due to differences in current and (projected) future demographic and socio-economic profiles and smoking rates.

This piece of research is the fifth in a series of chronic conditions prevalence forecasting reports which IPH has produced. Previous studies on hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes were launched in 2010.The research series is based on statistical models of disease prevalence developed in the UK by the Association of Public Observatories (APHO).

The full Making Chronic Conditions Count: Chronic Airflow Obstruction report is available online at the Heath Well, a health information website developed by IPH in association with other public health organisations across the island of Ireland. See

Further Information
(RoI) Ronan Cavanagh, Montague Communications: (01) 830 3116 / (086) 317 9731.
(NI) Claire-Anne Irwin, Stratagem: (028) 908 72800 / (0792) 044 5777.
(NI) Arlene McKay, IPH: (028) 9069 0058 / (0773) 490 3944.

1. Making Chronic Conditions Count
Making Chronic Conditions Count is a programme of research to systematically estimate and forecast the population prevalence of chronic conditions at national and sub-national levels across the island. The estimates and forecasts combine the risk of disease with population estimates and projections provided by the Republic of Ireland’s Central Statistics Office and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.

IPH’s other prevalence forecasting reports on hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes are available at the Health Well:

2. Institute of Public Health in Ireland
The Institute of Public Health in Ireland (IPH) promotes cooperation for public health across the island of Ireland. It aims to improve health by working to combat health inequalities and influence public policy in favour of health. Further information at