Prevalence of wheeze, bronchial hyper-responsiveness and asthma in the elderly Chinese


Correspondence:Dr Christopher KW Lai, Room 1403, Tak Shing House, 20 Des Voeux Road, Central Hong Kong. E-mail:


Background Asthma is a common health problem affecting patients of all ages. Because of the ease of sampling, epidemiological studies have concentrated mainly on the paediatric and general population.

Objective This study aimed to determine the prevalence of wheeze, bronchial hyper-responsiveness and asthma amongst our elderly population and deduce any clinical and laboratory risk factors that might identify elderly asthmatics at an earlier stage.

Methods Two thousand and thirty-two elderly Chinese aged ≥ 70 years, randomly selected from a registered list of all recipients of Old Age and Disability Allowances in Hong Kong, were administered a questionnaire on lung health. Two hundred and fifty subjects were invited to attend our laboratory for skin tests and pulmonary function tests and 179 agreed. Of these, 173 (96.6%) and 176 (98.3%) had eosinophil count and serum IgE levels measured, respectively. Two definitions of asthma were used: (1) bronchial hyper-responsiveness (BHR) plus current wheeze, and (2) history of wheezing without previous diagnostic labels of emphysema or chronic bronchitis.

Results Fifteen patients (out of 179: 8.4%) reported wheezing over the past 1 year. Fifty-one patients (28.5%) demonstrated BHR on spirometry or histamine challenge tests. Seven patients had both symptoms of wheezing and evidence of BHR. The prevalence of asthma using this definition is therefore 3.9% (95% CI 1.6–7.9%). Nine patients had symptoms of wheezing without previous diagnostic labels of chronic bronchitis or emphysema and, using this definition, the prevalence is 5.0% (95% CI 2.3–9.3%). Using multiple logistic regression studies, sex, social class, age, smoking habits, serum IgE levels and eosinophil counts did not predict a diagnosis of asthma using either definition. We found no association between a positive skin test and any respiratory symptoms or illnesses including asthma.

Conclusion Wheeze, bronchial hyper-responsiveness and asthma are prevalent amongst our elderly population. However, there were no identifiable demographic and laboratory risk factors in this study that may help us predict a diagnosis of asthma.