Whether it’s heart disease, cancer, stroke or diabetes, 6 out of 10 adults have a chronic disease. Even more alarming is that 4 out of 10 people have two or more.
With chronic diseases afflicting more and more people every year, it’s important to be aware of the causes of these health issues and take the steps you can take to reduce your risk of contracting them .
What does it mean to have a chronic illness?
A chronic illness is a condition that lasts for a long period of time and requires continuous medical treatment. Typically, these diseases are not curable, but many are treatable and manageable through tools such as integrative and functional medicine, dr Casey Kelley, MD, ABoIMFounder and Medical Director at Case Integrative Health, explains.
In addition, many patients suffering from a chronic disease find that it greatly affects their everyday life, even limiting their mobility or preventing them from working. It’s important to remember that many chronic diseases are what we call “invisible diseases,” adds Dr. Kelley added. That is, they are not immediately noticeable externally, but continue to affect the daily life of the patient. Keep in mind that a person’s appearance doesn’t always accurately reflect their inner health.
dr William Soliman, PhD, BCMAS, Founder and CEO of the Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs, explains that a chronic illness usually means it is a progressive disease that gets worse over time. Individuals with chronic illness have had the disease for at least one or more years.
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Causes of chronic diseases
There are many different chronic diseases, each with their own specific cause.
A common chronic disease that affects approximately 21 million Americans is type 2 diabetes, in which your body doesn’t use insulin properly (also known as insulin resistance). This causes blood sugar to build up in the bloodstream and damage parts of your body, explains Dr. Kelly. Without proper treatment, people with type 2 diabetes are often at higher risk of stroke, kidney disease and blindness. You can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by maintaining a healthy weight, leading an active lifestyle and eating a balanced, low-carbohydrate diet.
Although less common than type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease is a chronic disease that affects more than 700,000 Americans. Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation in your digestive tract, leading to abdominal pain, fatigue, and malnutrition. There is no known cause of Crohn’s disease, although genetics and environment both likely play a role, explains Dr. Kelly. Unfortunately, there is no cure for Crohn’s disease, and the symptoms can be debilitating and even life-limiting. However, many patients find that with the right treatment, they can achieve at least temporary remission and improve their quality of life.
After all, depression is one of the underestimated chronic diseases. Unfortunately, when we think of chronic diseases, we often forget that they also include mental illnesses. Major depression is a mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness and apathy, affecting over 17 million Americans.
Depression has many causes, from genetics and faulty brain chemistry to negative life events. While depression can only come on once, most patients typically find that it recurs periodically throughout life, explains Dr. Kelly. Unfortunately, there is no “cure” for depression. However, individuals can usually manage the condition with the right medication and therapeutic team.
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The leading cause of chronic disease is lifestyle, explains Dr. Soliman. For example, people with sedentary lifestyles are more likely to develop chronic heart disease than those who exercise. The other important factors are environmental and genetic. Individuals with a strong family history of certain types of cancer, e.g. Patients such as colon cancer may be more prone to developing colon cancer earlier than other patients.
In this way you reduce your risk of developing a chronic disease
Chronic diseases are a huge category, and while some can be prevented, others are simply down to the genetic lottery, infection, or something else. However, there are steps you can take in your daily life to maximize your health and minimize your chances of developing some of these conditions.
Stop drinking and smoking
Do the most obvious thing first: quit smoking and make sure you’re not drinking too much alcohol. Both smoking and alcohol consumption are linked to various types of cancer, high blood pressure and heart disease, explains Dr. Kelly.
Eat a healthy and balanced diet
Do what you can to eat nutritious food and make sure you incorporate exercise into your life, explains Dr. Kelly. Both will help you maintain a healthy weight and prevent chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
get enough sleep
Another step you can take is establishing a healthy sleep schedule. Inadequate sleep can lead to a variety of chronic conditions, including type 2 diabetes and depression, says Dr. Kelly.
Engage in physical activity
Regular exercise and exercise play a very important role in reducing the risk of developing chronic diseases.
You don’t have to be a gym member to do this — simple things like regular walks after dinner or a nighttime yoga routine can significantly reduce your risks, explains Dr. Kelly.
Find healthy coping mechanisms for stress
Managing stress is crucial when it comes to protecting yourself from disease.
Mental health is just as important as physical health, so invest in self-care and seek treatment if you’re struggling, says Dr. Kelly. While there is no 100% method of chronic disease prevention, mitigating risky behaviors and incorporating healthy alternatives will help you reduce your risk over time.
Next: Can lifestyle changes actually reverse—not just prevent or treat—chronic disease?