Danica Patrick’s crusade against COPD

In the coming months, famed race car driver Danica Patrick will be spending her time on and off the track raising awareness for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an under-diagnosed condition that affects millions of Americans.

Patrick’s own life was touched by the disease when her grandmother died of COPD in 2001 at the age of 65.  The disease had also stripped Patrick’s grandmother of the ability to walk and breathe on her own during her last years of life.

“In the end, she was in a wheelchair, on oxygen 24 hours a day,” Patrick told FoxNews.com.  “Her quality of life was very compromised.  It was sad to see.”

COPD includes two main conditions: emphysema and chronic bronchitis – or, more commonly, some combination of the two.

Among the symptoms of COPD: coughing that produces large amounts of mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness.

“What usually brings a patient in if they’re short of breath, they have a chronic cough, chest pain or a hernia, which occurs more frequently in patients with COPD,” Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist and internist at Lenox Hill Hospital in N.Y., told FoxNews.com.  “They’ll say something like, they were absolutely fine two months ago, and now all of the sudden they’re out of breath after climbing a flight of stairs.  They’ve lost their reserve – it’s like, you don’t know you’re running out of gas until the tank is empty.”

Over time, especially if it goes untreated, COPD can lead to severely decreased lung function, disability and death.

“My grandfather had to take care [my grandmother] all the time,” Patrick said.  “She wasn’t able to participate in as many things as she and my family would have wanted her to.

“And – she was only 65 when she died.  That’s the thing about COPD; it takes a lot of lives before age 70.”

In honor of her grandmother’s memory, Patrick has teamed up with COPD Foundation on DRIVE4COPD (www.drive4copd.org), the official health initiative of NASCAR, to help raise awareness and increase screening for the disease, which is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

The COPD Foundation will sponsor the NASCAR Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 race in Daytona, Fla. in February 2013 for the third consecutive year, to support the initiative, as well as multiple other events throughout the year to raise awareness among fans.

“[This initiative] fits in with the values and demographics of NASCAR,” Patrick explained.  “It’s an outdoor event, there are smokers – it’s a prime spot to notify people of the signs.  It’s a great partnership.”

An estimated 24 million Americans have COPD, although approximately half don’t know it.

“I think the warning signs [of COPD] tend to get written off,” Patrick said.  “You’re out of breath, coughing up phlegm, things like that, which can happen as we get older and reduce exercise.  We write some of these things off to not being as fit as we used to be, but sometimes it’s more than that.”

Smoking is the leading cause of disease, but non-smokers can develop the disease as well – especially if they work in occupations that involve exposure to chemicals or dust -- leading doctors to stress the importance of screening in all people over the age of 35.

And smokers should be screened as early as their 20s, Horovitz recommended.

“The screen should be part of a yearly physical,” Horvitz said. “It’s very easy, quick and non-invasive, and it should be done just like a routine chest X-ray or EKG or mammogram to get your baseline.”

Patrick said her grandmother, a longtime smoker, likely had COPD for much longer than anyone ever knew due to not getting screened early enough.

“Definitely one of the major problems with the disease is under-diagnosis and lack of awareness until it’s pretty far along,” Patrick said.

If a patient is screened and diagnosed in the disease’s early stages, doctors can then focus on helping patients slow the progression of the disease and control their symptoms.

“if the patient is a smoker, the first thing is to get the patient to stop smoking,” Horovitz said.  “That’s a battle in and of itself.  Treatment might or might not require an inhaler.  If it’s mild, you can control the symptoms that way.”

Horovitz also advised COPD patients should engage in cardiac exercise – as much as they can tolerate – and get as close as they can to a healthy body weight, especially if they are obese or overweight.

If you think you may be at risk for COPD,  visit drive4copd.org and take the five-question screener to determine your likelihood of the disease.

“[The test] has screened 2.5 million people in five years, so it’s very effective,” Patrick said.  “A statistic showed 30 percent of people who took the screener were determined ‘at risk,’ so that’s a huge number.”