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Asthma Problem Growing In Area

Study: Connecticut Highest In Region

March 27, 2006
By ELIZABETH HAMILTON, Courant Staff Writer

While there is evidence pointing to a possible stabilization of asthma rates across the nation, the disease remains on the rise in New England, especially among low-income adults, a new study has concluded.

The study, conducted by The New England Asthma Regional Council, found that nearly 15 percent of adults and 14 percent of children living in New England have been diagnosed with asthma at some point in their lives. This represents roughly 2.1 million people - up from 1.7 million three years ago.

By several measures, asthma rates in New England outstripped the rest of the country. The lifetime asthma rate for adults nationally, for example, was 13 percent - two points lower than New England. Among the states in the region, Connecticut had the highest, at 15.3 percent.

"It's just extraordinarily frustrating when you see rates going up and up," said Laurie Stillman, executive director of the council. "Even though we don't know what is causing asthma, it's an eminently controllable disease. But it seems we are not doing a good enough job controlling it."

Although the study does not point to any single reason, experts say it's probably attributable to a number of different factors, such as the region's older housing stock, smoking, and air pollution from diesel fuel, industrial facilities and out-of-state power plants.

Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease that, if left untreated, can cause permanent lung damage, disability and even death. In 2003, nearly 30 million people had been diagnosed with asthma in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Among the study's major findings:

Asthma in adult women is much higher than in men (12.5 percent vs. 7.1 percent) and is growing significantly.

The disease is more common in boys (11.4 percent vs. 7 percent for girls).

Hispanic children have a significantly higher rate of asthma than non-Hispanic white children, while African American children have a somewhat higher rate than non-Hispanic whites.

Children living with someone who smokes have a 44 percent greater chance of getting asthma.

Poor adults and children are much more likely to have asthma, and children in the lowest income bracket have double the rates of asthma compared with those in the highest income bracket.

Asthma rates were significantly higher among adults who were obese (13.1 percent vs. 8.7 percent) than for those not overweight or obese.

The findings, while not surprising to those who work in the field, were somewhat sobering.

"I think it's very significant" said Paula Schenck, assistant director of the Center for Indoor Environments and Health at the University of Connecticut Health Center. "As we learn more, improving our environments looks to me like it could really make a difference."

Dr. Craig Schramm, chief of the pediatric pulmonary division at the Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford, agreed.

"Our cities are old; there is decaying infrastructure; there is the traffic issue," Schramm said. "There is the density of life when you're in an urban area - more pollution, more smoking, more contacts, more everything."

Schramm said doctors at the children's hospital have noticed the correlation between urban problems - homes and schools that suffer from mold problems, cockroach infestations and the like - and asthma in children, all of which can make the illness very difficult to treat.

Even if children take preventive medicine to control their asthma, Schramm said, it can be impossible to address the underlying reasons for the asthma in the first place because low-income families can either not afford to move into better housing or put in place the safeguards that the doctors recommend.

"I tell people it's like having a pebble in your shoe," Schramm said. "If the thing that is inducing your asthma is still there, it's hard to control."

In Connecticut, the study found that 13.7 percent of children under 18 have been diagnosed with asthma at some point in their lives and 8.7 percent report they currently have asthma.

For Connecticut adults, the numbers were 15.3 percent and 9.7 percent.

The study also outlined the effects of the disease. In New England, more than 30 percent of adults who said they have asthma reported being limited by the illness, 22 percent said they were in fair or poor overall health, and 17 percent reported frequent mental distress. About 9 percent of adults with asthma reported being unable to work.

"For 9 percent of adults to say they can't work, that's huge," Stillman said. "This all says to me that we have a particular problem in the Northeast and that the numbers of people who are adversely affected on a day-to-day level and the way that is affecting our economy in terms of loss of productivity and health care costs is also huge."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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