BACKGROUND: The joint distribution of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has not been well described. This study aims at determining the prevalence of self-reported physician diagnoses of asthma, COPD and of the asthma-COPD overlap syndrome and to assess whether these conditions share a common set of risk factors.METHODS: A screening questionnaire on respiratory symptoms, diagnoses and risk factors was administered by mail or phone to random samples of the general Italian population aged 20-44 (n = 5163) 45-64 (n = 2167) and 65-84 (n = 1030) in the frame of the multicentre Gene Environment Interactions in Respiratory Diseases (GEIRD) study.RESULTS: A physician diagnosis of asthma or COPD (emphysema/chronic bronchitis/COPD) was reported by 13% and 21% of subjects aged <65 and 65-84 years respectively. Aging was associated with a marked decrease in the prevalence of diagnosed asthma (from 8.2% to 1.6%) and with a marked increase in the prevalence of diagnosed COPD (from 3.3% to 13.3%). The prevalence of the overlap of asthma and COPD was 1.6% (1.3%-2.0%), 2.1% (1.5%-2.8%) and 4.5% (3.2%-5.9%) in the 20-44, 45-64 and 65-84 age groups. Subjects with both asthma and COPD diagnoses were more likely to have respiratory symptoms, physical impairment, and to report hospital admissions compared to asthma or COPD alone (p<0.01). Age, sex, education and smoking showed different and sometimes opposite associations with the three conditions.CONCLUSION: Asthma and COPD are common in the general population, and they coexist in a substantial proportion of subjects. The asthma-COPD overlap syndrome represents an important clinical phenotype that deserves more medical attention and further research.
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