Skip to Content

Effects of Aging on the Respiratory System


Rebecca Dezube

, MD, MHS, Johns Hopkins University

Last full review/revision Mar 2021| Content last modified Mar 2021

The effects of aging on the respiratory system are similar to those that occur in other organs: maximum function gradually declines. Age-related changes in the lungs include

(See also Overview of the Respiratory System.)

In healthy people, these age-related changes seldom lead to symptoms. These changes contribute somewhat to an older person's reduced ability to do vigorous exercise, especially intense aerobic exercise, such as running, biking, and mountain climbing. However, age-related decreases in heart function may be a more important cause of such limitations.

Older people are at higher risk of developing pneumonia after bacterial or viral infections. Thus, vaccines for respiratory infections such as influenza and pneumococcal pneumonia are particularly important for older people.

Importantly, age-related changes in the lungs are compounded by the effects of heart and lung diseases, especially those caused by the destructive effects of smoking.

Did You Know?

  • In healthy people, age-related reductions in lung function seldom lead to symptoms, but they can contribute to an older person's reduced ability to do vigorous exercise.

Copyright © 2022 Merck & Co., Inc., known as MSD outside of the US, Kenilworth, New Jersey, USA. All rights reserved. Merck Manual Disclaimer