Estimated Lung Age (ELA)

Cigarette smoking raises the probability that an individual will get lung cancer, chronic bronchitis and/or emphysema (among many other things). Nicotine is addictive and smokers often need significant motivation in order to quit. Lung age is a tool that was designed to give smokers an additional incentive to do this. The concept is fairly simple and that is by reformulating an FEV1 reference equation it is possible to take an individual’s actual FEV1 and estimate the age of their lungs (ELA). Because cigarette smoking can cause airway obstruction it tends to mimic premature lung aging which means that when a smoker’s FEV1 is used to calculate an ELA it can be significantly greater than their real or chronological lung age (CLA).

This idea was first proposed by Morris and Temple in 1985. Using Morris et al’s 1971 spirometry reference equations they studied the effect of calculating an estimated lung age (ELA) using observed FVC, FEV1 and FEF25-75 values both singly and in combinations and found that the FEV1 had the lowest standard error. The ELA calculation based on Morris et al’s FEV1 reference equations has achieved a degree of popularity and is available on at least one personal spirometer (Pulmolife, sold by Carefusion, MDSpiro and Vitalograph) and as an on-line calculator from a couple different websites ( and Lung Foundation of Australia).

Interestingly, the effectiveness of ELA towards quitting smoking has been studied only a handful of times. One often-quoted study of smoking cessation (Parkes et al) saw double the quit rate (13.6% vs 6.4%) when ELA was used as an intervention but the study’s methodology has since been criticized and it’s results have not been duplicated.

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Flow-volume loops are timeless

Recently I’ve been trying to help somebody whose spirometry results changed drastically depending on where their tests were performed. When their spirometry was performed on an office spirometer their FVC was less than 60% of predicted and when they were performed in a PFT lab on a multi-purpose test system their FVC was closer to 90% of predicted. Part of the reason for this was that different predicted equations are being used in each location but even so there was about a 1.5 liter difference in FVC.

One important clue is that the reports from the office spirometer showed an expiratory time of around 2 to 2-1/2 seconds while the reports from the PFT lab showed expiratory times from 9 to 12 seconds. The reports from both locations however, only had flow-volume loops and reported expiratory time numerically. There were no volume-time curves so it isn’t possible to verify that the spirometry being performed at either location was measuring time correctly or to say much about test quality.

The shape of a flow-volume loop is often quite diagnostic and many lung disorders are associated with very distinct and specific contours. Volume-time curves, on the other hand, are very old-school and are the original way that spirometry was recorded. The contours of volume-time curves are not terribly diagnostic or distinctive and I suspect they are often included as a report option more because of tradition than any thing else. But volume-time curves are actually a critically important tool for assessing the quality of spirometry and one of the most important reasons for this is because there is no time in a flow-volume loop.

With this in mind, the following flow-volume loop came across my desk yesterday. The FVC, FEV1 and FEV1/FVC ratio were all normal and it was the best of the patient’s efforts.


The contour of this flow-volume loop is actually reasonably normal, except possibly for the little blip at the end.
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IC, ERV and the FVC

While reviewing reports today I ran across a couple of lung volume tests from different patients where the SVC was over a liter less than the FVC. Suboptimal SVC measurement can affect both the TLC and the RV and in one case the TLC was slightly below normal (78% of predicted) and in the other the TLC was within normal limits but the RV was over 150% of predicted. Both patients had had lung volume measurements previously and the current TLC was significantly different than it had been before.

I seem to run across this problem at least once a week so I am reasonably used to making manual corrections. I’ve discussed this previously but basically I use the position of the tidal loop within the maximal flow-volume loop obtained during spirometry to determine IC and ERV and then re-calculate TLC and RV accordingly.


Anyway, for this reason I had tidal loops, and IC and ERV on my mind while I was reviewing other reports. Shortly after this I came across a report that had “fair FVC test quality and reproducibility” in the tech notes so I pulled up the raw spirometry test data and took a closer look.

What I found was that the patient had performed five spirometry efforts and that the FVC and FEV1 was different on each test. All five spirometry efforts met the ATS/ERS criteria for back-extrapolation, expiratory time and end-of-test flow rates. I clicked back and forth between the different spirometry efforts to make sure the right FVC and FEV1 had been selected and when I did I noticed that the position of the tidal loop was shifting left and right and that the closer it was to TLC, the lower the FVC and FEV1 were and vice versa.


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