The Facts About Chronic Disease – Are You at Risk?

General Medical

Woman suffering from a chronic disease (cancer) being comforted by her mother
Chronic disease is the main cause of death and disability around the world. Everyone is at risk of multiple diseases but many of them are caused by lifestyle factors. Changing your lifestyle can reduce the risk of developing many chronic diseases.     

As well as taking a physical and emotional toll on people, chronic disease is a growing financial burden to healthcare systems and the economy. Many governments and health authorities are attempting to educate people about the risk factors associated with chronic disease, yet the problem continues to grow.

What is Chronic Disease?

Chronic disease is a group of physical or mental health conditions that are long lasting. Chronic diseases often require hospitalisation and cause disability and reduced quality of life. They’re also a leading cause of death. 

The World Health Organisation lists the main chronic diseases as:

  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular Disease (mainly heart disease and stroke)
  • Chronic Respiratory Diseases (such as asthma)
  • Diabetes
  • Other diseases including mental health disorders, oral diseases, bone and joint disorders, vision and hearing impairment and genetic disorders.        

Typically, a chronic disease lasts for a year or more and requires hospitalisation. Acute diseases are quick onset and usually more brief and severe than chronic diseases. 

Chronic Disease Statistics & Facts

The rate and cost of chronic disease in Australia is alarming. Much of the latest available research and data comes out of the United States so we have primarily referred to US research and statistics throughout this article. 

With chronic disease, health authorities need to know how prevalent each disease is, the risk factors and the best methods for control. Extensive research in the US has provided valuable insights into: 

  • Who’s most at risk by analysing age, gender, race, and location
  • Correlations between diseases
  • How patients can make lifestyle changes to manage their condition

The number of adult Americans suffering from chronic diseases or related health conditions is staggering. The numbers are worsening because of an ageing population and poor lifestyle choices. For example:

In Australia the statistics about chronic diseases are equally concerning. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW):

  • 87% of deaths in Australia were associated with chronic diseases.
  • 37% of hospitalisations were due to chronic diseases.
  • Nearly 25% of Australians have 2 or more chronic health conditions.
  • Being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for multiple chronic diseases.

Behaviours that Lead to Chronic Disease

While not all chronic diseases are attributed to poor lifestyle choices, it contributes to the majority of cases. 

  • 14% of the US adult population smokes tobacco. 
  • One in six US adults binge drinks about four times a month.
  • Less than one in 10 adults and adolescents eat enough fruit and vegetables.
  • Only 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 5 high school students do enough physical activity to meet CDC guidelines.

Statistics About The Economic Cost of Chronic Disease 

An elderly couple paying expensive hospital bills

The economic impact of chronic disease is significant. Preventing even a small percentage of chronic diseases would save the United States economy billions of dollars in lost productivity, disability, health care costs and premature death.   

  • Mental health and chronic disease accounts for 90% of the $3.3 trillion spent on healthcare annually in the US. 
  • Cardiovascular disease is one of the most expensive with $350 billion spent annually ($213 billion in medical expenses and $137 billion in lost productivity).
  • Caring for cancer patients in the US will cost $158 billion by 2020. 
  • Diabetes costs the US economy $176 billion in medical costs and $69 billion in lost productivity.
  • The cost of obesity is a whopping $147 billion with an obese person costing around $1,500 more in medical treatment than a person of average weight. 
  • Smokers cost $300 billion per year ($170 billion in medical care and $156 billion for lost productivity due to premature death). 
  • Excessive alcohol consumption costs the US economy $249 billion.   

Leading Types of Chronic Disease

Many people fear the four main types of chronic disease because they account for the most disabilities and premature deaths worldwide.   


The term cancer covers several diseases where abnormal cells multiply and spread via the blood or lymph systems. There are over 100 types of cancer and any organ in the body can become cancerous.

Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular disease is a collective term for diseases that include coronary heart disease, cardiomyopathy, congenital heart disease, heart failure, peripheral vascular disease and stroke. 


The hormone Insulin controls the blood’s glucose levels. If there’s a lack of insulin or the body’s tissues don’t respond to insulin, blood glucose levels will rise which is a characteristic of diabetes. There are two kinds of diabetes, Type 1 and Type 2. The most common form is Type 2, usually diagnosed in adults and often due to them being. Children are most commonly diagnosed with Type 1 because of a lack of insulin produced by the pancreas. 

Chronic Respiratory Diseases 

There are many types of lung disease. One of the most common is asthma where the small airways in the lungs are obstructed. The other common form is chronic obstructive respiratory disease which is the irreversible obstruction of the larger airways in the lung.  

Chronic Disease Affects 6 in 10 Adults 

The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP) reports six in ten adults in the US have a chronic disease. Four in ten adults have two or more chronic diseases (known as a comorbidity). More than half of all older adults have three or more chronic conditions. With an ageing population, the medical profession expects the number of people with comorbidities to increase. 

Woman with achronic disease (diabete) doing a blood glucose test

The trend shows an overall increase in the number of chronic diseases. Reasons for the increase include: 

  • an ageing population
  • longer life expectancy because of medical advances
  • risk factors of a sedentary lifestyle, smoking and poor diet

A Milken Institute analysis estimates that even modest reductions in unhealthy behaviours could prevent or delay 40 million cases of chronic disease annually.  

Lifestyle and Other Risk Factors

Everyone has several risk factors that increase their chance of developing a chronic disease. We can’t avoid some factors such as our genetics, but we all make lifestyle choices daily that either increase or decrease our risk of developing chronic disease.   

Physical and Psychological Makeup 

Genetics do play a big part in chronic disease. If your predecessors suffered a disease, your chance of developing that disease is higher than someone with no family history. 

A nurse conducting an ultra sound to check the movement of a baby

The prenatal environment can also influence your risk factors before you’re even born. The choices your mother makes to smoke or drink while pregnant can impact you from birth or later in life. 

Ageing also impacts chronic disease. The older you are, the greater the chances of developing a chronic disease. Even your gender can also increase or decrease your risk of developing a chronic disease. 

While you can’t alter your physical and psychological makeup, you can take steps to prevent and control chronic disease. Knowing your lifestyle risk factors and taking action to avoid them can reduce the impact of some genetic risks.  

Biomedical Factors

Lifestyle can influence some biomedical factors. 

If you had a low birth weight, you’re more at risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke later in life. Your tolerance to glucose and immune status are other factors you can’t control. 

However, you can alter your body weight, blood pressure and blood cholesterol. Almost 75% of men and 60% of women in America are obese or overweight. In Australia, 67% of the adult population is obese or overweight

Doctors recommend you eat a balanced diet, exercise and lose weight to improve blood pressure and reduce cholesterol levels. 

Lifestyle Factors

The everyday choices we make affect our long-term health. 

If you smoke, use illicit drugs or consume a high level of alcohol, you’re increasing your risks for multiple diseases. Around 14% of the US adult population smokes, and 1 in 5 deaths are attributed to smoking. In Australia, 14% of people over the age of 15 smoke daily

Man pouring an alcoholic drink, too much alcohol consumption can lead to chronic disease

The same applies to making poor dietary choices and low levels of exercise. 

While there are many risk factors for chronic disease, the NCCDPHP has identified the following four key lifestyle risks:

  • Use of tobacco and/or breathing second-hand smoke
  • Poor nutrition
  • Lack of physical activity 
  • Drinking excessive alcohol 

Socioeconomic Factors

Your socioeconomic situation can play a part in whether you suffer from a chronic disease. Education and employment affect wealth, housing and location. People in remote areas also often have poor access to medical treatment.   

Social Norms and Culture

The culture and affluence of the country you live in affects the level of medical care available to you. Life expectancy and mortality rates are also linked to chronic disease rates. Social inclusion, education and access to information can also play a part in reducing chronic disease. 

How to Prevent Chronic Diseases

Prevention is far better than attempting to treat chronic disease. Some chronic diseases have the same risk factors in common so modifying behaviour can minimise the risk of multiple chronic diseases.  


Not all cancers are preventable but the risks can be reduced for many types.   

Screening Tests 

Tests are available to find breast, cervical and colon cancers in their initial stages, so treatment can begin early and patients have the best chance of survival. 


A vaccine injection can reduce the risk of developing cancer later in life. The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine reduces the risk of cervical cancer and the hepatitis B vaccine reduces the chance of liver cancer. Scientists are working on developing vaccines to prevent other types of cancer. 

Nurse giving a vaccine to a woman to reduce the chance of developing cervical cancer


Research has found a diet high in fruits and vegetables and a moderate amount of fats and red meat can help prevent some cancers. Not smoking and limiting alcohol intake also helps protect you from some cancers. Protect your skin from the sun to ward off skin cancer and do plenty of exercise to control your weight. 

Cardiovascular Disease

Age is a risk factor of cardiovascular disease. Men over 45 and women over 55 have a greater risk than younger people. While you can’t stop having birthdays, you can keep your heart healthy by making good lifestyle choices.    

Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease. Make sure you have regular tests at your GP. You may need medication to assist with managing your blood pressure. 

Maintain a Healthy Weight and Diet

Being overweight or obese increases the chance of a chronic disease because it impacts other risk factors such as high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and diabetes. It’s also important to limit your intake of foods that are high in saturated fats, sugar and salt. 

Regular Exercise

Physical exercise builds a strong heart, improves circulation and helps keep off excess weight. It will also make you feel good, both physically and mentally.

A young couple exercising to reduce the chance of developing heart disease

Keep Stress at Bay

Extreme stress can trigger some heart attacks but regular, moderate stress can harm your heart as it raises blood pressure. If you often feel stressed, look for ways to relieve your stress levels.      

Limit Alcohol and Don’t Smoke

Limiting your alcohol intake to no more than two standard drinks per day for men and one for women will help reduce your risk of heart disease. 

Smoking-related heart disease is a major killer globally. Cigarette smoke clogs arteries and raises blood pressure increasing the risk of a heart attack and stroke. If you’re a smoker, ask your doctor about ways to quit.

Get Enough Sleep

Research has found an association between poor sleep and high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity which are all risk factors of heart disease. Most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night to stay healthy. 


Type 2 diabetes risk factors include being obese, high blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride (blood fat) levels. Making changes to lifestyle can dramatically reduce your chance of a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis. Excess body fat can cause resistance to the hormone insulin. Managing your weight is possible through regular exercise, a balanced diet and a limited alcohol intake. It’s important to see your doctor for check-ups as many people have undiagnosed Type 2 diabetes.  

Managing Your Chronic Disease

Chronic diseases are long-term illnesses that require ongoing treatment and care. Some conditions are easier to treat than others and have little impact on quality of life. But for most people, a chronic disease severely impact their lives. 

Educate Yourself About Your Illness

If your doctor has diagnosed you with a chronic illness, try to find out as much information as possible. Know the signs and symptoms to look for, how to best care for yourself and any steps you can take to improve the condition and quality of life. Most chronic diseases have support groups that can provide quality information and assistance. 

Health Care Providers

If you don’t already, find a GP you can talk to. Ask your doctor plenty of questions. You may have a team of healthcare providers including your GP, specialists, a physiotherapist and counsellor. Encourage them to share information so it keeps everyone informed of your treatment. 

Healthy Lifestyle

It’s never too late to make better lifestyle choices. Eat a balanced diet to support your immune system and exercise regularly to improve circulation and assist your mental health. Try not to let your illness take away all of life’s pleasures. Stay socially active by seeing friends and family and speak to other people suffering from the same condition so you don’t feel so alone. 

Middle-aged woman staying healthy and walking her dog in the park

Developing a chronic disease in later life is not a foregone conclusion. While your genetics and age may be against you, it’s possible to decrease your chances of chronic disease through a healthy lifestyle. 

By preventing or prolonging the onset of a chronic disease you can avoid hospitalisation potentially even a  disability and an early death. If you have a chronic disease, educate yourself and stay positive through the treatment.  

If you have any queries about how to improve your lifestyle or living with a chronic disease, it’s important that you speak to your doctor.

Tammy George

Please note: Tammy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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