'An Officer and a Gentleman' actor Louis Gossett Jr. died from COPD, report says: What to know about symptoms and risks

Louis Gossett Jr. fought a years-long battle with the disease but died on March 29, according to a family member.

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This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Louis Gossett Jr., posing here on a black background, died on March 29 of COPD. (Photo by Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images)
Louis Gossett Jr. died on March 29 of COPD. (Photo by Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images)

Louis Gossett Jr.'s cause of death has been revealed to be a chronic inflammatory lung condition, according to newly-released records.

A death certificate obtained by USA Today on Wednesday confirmed the 87-year-old actor died in March of a years-long battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It also showed heart failure and atrial fibrillation contributed to the "An Officer and a Gentleman" star's death.

The Emmy-award winning actor, who was the first Black man to win a supporting actor Oscar award, died on March 29 in Santa Monica, Calif., according to the Associated Press.

"Never mind the awards, never mind the glitz and glamour, the Rolls-Royces and the big houses in Malibu. It's about the humanity of the people that he stood for," the "Roots" actor's first cousin, Neal L. Gossett, told the outlet.

But what exactly is this disease the Hollywood legend died from, and is it something you should worry about when it comes to your own health? Read on to learn more about COPD.

COPD is a progressive lung disease that causes airways to become swollen and blocked. It's an umbrella term used to describe various lung conditions including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, according to COPD Canada.

In chronic bronchitis, the airways in your lungs become inflamed and narrowed. This means eventually you will develop more mucus, leading to a persistent cough and difficulty breathing.

For enphysema, the disease develops over time and involves the gradual damage of tiny air sacs in your lungs called alveoli. The damage eventually causes these air sacs to rupture, reducing the surface area that lets oxygen move through the bloodstream.

COPD infographic comparing emphysema and bronchitis. (Photo via Getty Images)
COPD manifests itself in two forms: Emphysema and bronchitis. (Photo via Getty Images)

The most common symptoms of COPD are difficulty breathing, chronic cough (sometimes with mucus) and feeling tired, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The Canadian Lung Association added a person with COPD might also present some of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling short of breath

  • Lung infections (like the flu or pneumonia) that may last longer than it would in others

  • Wheezing

  • Losing weight without trying

These symptoms can get worse quickly and may be called flare-ups. "These usually last for a few days and often require additional medicine," WHO stated.

COPD develops over time, often as a result of a combination of risk factors, according to the WHO. These may include:

  • Smoking, or being exposed to second-hand smoke

  • Exposure to dusts, fumes or chemicals in the workplace

  • Indoor air pollution, from sources like burning fuel for heat or coal to cook

  • Asthma in childhood

  • Early life events including poor growth in utero, prematurity or frequent respiratory infections

  • A rare genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency

A man sits outside and holds a slim menthol cigarette between his fingers while smoking. Close-up with focus on the cigarette. (Photo via Getty Images)
Smoking is the main cause of COPD in many developed countries. (Photo via Getty Images)

The Canadian Lung Association indicated adults over age 40 who smoke or previously smoked may be at risk of COPD.

"It is important to speak to a health-care provider if you are at risk of COPD, even if you don't have symptoms or have only mild symptoms," the organization stated. "COPD is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time."

COPD is severely underdiagnosed, according to the health charity. That's because people living with the disease may not show any symptoms, or they link their symptoms to factors like age, a common respiratory infection or a "smoker's cough." Moreover, some people who have stopped smoking may believe they can no longer develop COPD.

Historically, COPD was associated with older men who had a history of smoking. While the number of men and women who die of COPD in Canada each year is roughly equal, recent research has indicated COPD is likely underdiagnosed in women. The Canadian Lung Association shared women might also experience more severe symptoms and have earlier disease onset.

Finally, over the past two decades, there has been a rising number of COPD hospitalizations for both women in the 40 to 64 age group, as well as those older than 65. That's in addition to a decreasing number of hospitalizations in men.

In Canada, one in four people will be diagnosed with COPD. There are more than two million Canadians impacted by the disease, and a further one million likely living with the condition unknowingly. COPD is also the second-leading cause of hospitalization in Canada, behind only childbirth.

Globally, the WHO has indicated COPD is the third-leading cause of death, causing more than three million deaths in 2019 alone. That year, there were more than 212 million prevalent cases of COPD reported worldwide.

There is no cure for COPD. Still, there are ways to improve the condition and possibly slow its progression. Since the majority of COPD cases are related to using cigarettes, it's best to never smoke — or stop smoking now.

Moreover, you should speak to your supervisor about protection if you work around occupational exposure to chemical fumes, dusts or anything other elements that may increase your risk for COPD.

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