Background: The American Thoracic Society recommends using the lower limit of normal (LLN) method to diagnose obstructive lung disease. However, few studies have investigated the clinical relevance of these recommendations. We compared the LLN derived from available data sets to a fixed ratio (FEV1/FVC, < 75% or 70%) and also to the FEV1/FVC percent predicted ratio to determine the impact of changing the FEV1/FVC “cutoff” on the spirometric diagnosis of obstructive lung disease.
Methods: FEV1, FVC, FEV1/FVC ratio, age, race, sex, height, and weight were recorded from 1,503 pulmonary function tests. Predicted values were calculated using the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Study data set (Hankinson), and reference values from studies by Crapo, Knudson, and Morris. In addition, the LLN of the FEV1/FVC ratio was calculated for the Hankinson and Crapo reference values.
Results: The number of studies interpreted as obstructed varied from 37% using the Hankinson data set to 55% using the 75% fixed ratio method. Comparing the LLN method vs the 70% fixed ratio method resulted in 7.5% (Hankinson LLN vs 70% fixed) and 6.9% (Crapo LLN vs 70% fixed), which were discordant results. Age was the strongest predictor of discordance, and 16% of subjects > 74 years of age had discordant results comparing Hankinson values to the 70% fixed method.
Conclusion: At the extremes of age and height, a large number of spirometry test results will be interpreted as showing an obstructive defect if a 70% fixed ratio method is used for interpretation compared with the LLN derived from the Hankinson data set.