Video: Harold Wimmer, National President & CEO of the American Lung Association; Dr. Ravi Kalhan, Deputy Division Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern; and Lindy Olive, one of the study’s participants join “Chicago Tonight” to discuss the research. (Produced by Jennifer Cotto)
Nearly 40 cities across the country are recruiting 4,000 young adults ages 25-35 to participate in a study that will track and analyze their lung health over their lifetime to better understand how environment, lifestyle and physical activity impact respiratory health. Enrollment is already underway at Northwestern University.
“There has never been a study in the United States that actually examines people across (their) lifetime to understand who develops chronic lung disease and who doesn’t,” said Dr. Ravi Kalhan, the principal investigator of the study and deputy division chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Northwestern Medicine.
While there have been studies focused on helping people quit smoking, “we haven’t tried to focus on what people do outside of cigarette smoking that influences respiratory disease,” Kalhan said.
The American Lung Association Lung Health Cohort study seeks to identify an ideal picture of respiratory health and understand the key risk factors and biomarkers associated with impaired lung health.
Researchers are interested in understanding how health behaviors, social factors, environmental exposures and an individual’s own medical history influences the evolution of lung health, including the impact of COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 pandemic elevated the urgent need to address lung health here in the United States,” said Harold Wimmer, CEO of the American Lung Association. “Lung disease is one of the leading causes of death here in the United States, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, it has certainly increased the urgency for us to really learn and understand more about the lung and the more than 50 different lung conditions that affect the lung.”
Climate change, air pollution and tobacco are also important factors to consider as it relates to lung health, according to Wimmer.
“While we’re happy to see the smoking rate dropped significantly over the last several years, dropping to its lowest level of 12.5% of adults currently smoking which is really good to see, we are very concerned about ... the increased use of e-cigarettes among our youth, especially middle school and high school aged students,” he said. “Two million young adults are currently using e-cigarettes as they’re vaping. And I can’t fail to mention that lung cancer is the number one cancer killer of women and men in the United States.”
The study is the first federally funded longitudinal study of millennials, according to researchers.
“We think the age of peak respiratory health is in young adults,” Kalhan said, adding childhood influences such as where people live and grow up will be captured in studying young adults. “Every other study has been done in baby boomers … and baby boomers are not similar to millennials. We need to understand the differences better.”
So far 140 participants have enrolled in the study, including Chicagoan Lindy Olive, 28, who got COVID-19 in April 2021.
“It wasn’t until I got COVID that I started thinking about myself and my own lung health,” said Olive, who grew up on four acres of land in rural Alabama and lived and worked near an Environmental Protection Agency superfund site and landfill. “I was in great lung health until I got COVID. I couldn’t get up a flight of stairs without holding onto a wall.”
While her symptoms only lasted a few weeks, Olive says her infection served as “a wake-up call to look at all the things that happened over (my) life and all the places (I) lived and how that impacted my own lung health.”
At the beginning of the study, individuals will complete an assessment to determine their eligibility, which includes providing blood and nasal samples. Participants will also receive a low-dose CT scan. Participants will be contacted four times per year for brief follow-ups over five years. Individuals are not eligible to participate if they have severe asthma or other chronic lung disease, a history of cancer other than non-melanoma skin cancer, or are currently pregnant.
While the study is only currently scheduled to follow participants for five years, researchers are hopeful they’ll be able to sustain funding to follow individuals for decades.
“There hasn’t been a really good lung cancer life course study,” Kalhan said. “We hope to fill that gap.”