A study of 845 elderly people by UK researchers presented at the European Respiratory Society conference in Vienna found 25% of men and 29% of women had asthma or COPD. Nationally, this equates to around 350,000 people. As many as six in 10 men had some form of airflow obstruction.
Many respiratory disease cases were previously undiagnosed and researchers warned that the prevalence of COPD is likely to rise in coming years as more people live longer.
Lead author Therese Small from the Freeman Hospital and Newcastle University said: 'Over the next few years it will be crucial for healthcare professionals to understand the problems the ageing population will face.
'Our results confirm a significant prevalence of obstructive spirometry in the over-85 population. Further evaluation of this unique dataset will allow us to examine how much of this is attributable to healthy ageing of the lungs and how much to the airways disease in this population of very old people.'
The research formed part of the Newcastle 85+ study into the respiratory health of elderly people in the UK.
Researchers found that, as well as high prevalence of asthma and COPD, 59% of men and 50% of women had airflow obstruction as measured by spirometry.
Among the elderly patients, 42% of men and 17% of women reported significant occupational exposure to heavy industry, while 71% of men and 52% of women were current or ex-smokers.