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Study: Deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in Canada, 1950 to 2011

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Released: 2015-11-19

In 1950, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of lung diseases that block airflow into and out of the lungs making breathing difficult, caused 0.5% of all deaths in Canada. By 2011, COPD was responsible for 4.4% of all deaths in Canada among men and women aged 40 and older.

Based on their measured air flow, an estimated 1.8 million Canadians (11%) aged 35 to 79 had COPD during the 2012 to 2013 time period.

Chart 1  Chart 1: Deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as a percentage of all deaths, population aged 40 and older, 1950 to 2011
Deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as a percentage of all deaths, population aged 40 and older, 1950 to 2011

COPD has historically caused a higher percentage of all deaths among men than among women. By 2011, however, the gap in the percentage of deaths caused by COPD between the sexes had virtually disappeared. This is because the percentage of all deaths caused by COPD increased steadily among women between 1950 and 2011, while for men the rate remained constant throughout the 1990s and then decreased significantly between 1998 and 2011.

The main risk factor for COPD is smoking. However, non-smokers can also develop COPD as a result of environmental exposures, exposure to second-hand smoke, frequent childhood lung infections and genetic factors.

Research has identified a time lag between smoking uptake and death from COPD of about 15 to 20 years in women and 20 to 25 years in men. While smoking rates among men in Canada have been declining since 1965, the death rate from COPD did not begin to decrease until the late 1990s—just over 30 years after the fall in the smoking rate.

For women, the smoking rate has been declining consistently since the early 1990s, but there has not yet been a decrease in their COPD death rate. The death rate from COPD among women, however, stopped increasing significantly in 1997.

  Note to readers

The Vital Statistics – Death Database includes demographic and cause of death information for all deaths from all provincial and territorial vital statistics registries in Canada. Prior to 2010, data were collected on Canadian residents who died in some American states; these deaths were excluded from this analysis. Starting with the 2010 reference year, data on Canadian residents who died in American states are no longer collected. More information about this database is available online.

Measured air flow is determined by spirometry. Spirometry is a test used to measure the volume of air an individual inhales and exhales, as well as the speed at which the air is moved into and out of lungs. Respondents from the Canadian Health Measures Survey who had spirometry results that were below the lower limit of normal were defined in this study as having chronic obstructive pulmonary disease based on their measured air flow.


The article "Deaths from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease in Canada, 1950 to 2011" in Health at a Glance (Catalogue number82-624-X) is now available from the Browse by key resource module of our website under Publications.

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