Chronic illnesses affect almost half of the US population and 80% of adults aged 65 or older. Treatment of these chronic illnesses also account for the majority of healthcare costs in the United States today. (14)(19) While there are numerous chronic diseases, such as chronic kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which may vary in their development and clinical presentation, special considerations may be taken when addressing chronic health conditions.
Continue reading to learn more about chronic disease, the obstacles involved in chronic disease management, and lifestyle recommendations for preventing and managing chronic health conditions.
What are chronic diseases?
By definition, chronic diseases are illnesses that last longer than three months and are not self-limiting, meaning they do not come to a natural end. Chronic diseases can affect any area of the body and may present with many symptoms and stages. (19)
Chronic illnesses may also be caused by a variety of factors, such as genetics and environmental factors, and the onset and development of chronic diseases vary with each condition. (2) Some chronic illnesses, such as asthma and cystic fibrosis, tend to appear in childhood, while others typically appear later in life, such as multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). (5)
Did you know?
The average age of onset varies from condition to condition.
Many chronic conditions are commonly recognized terms. Some common chronic conditions with which you may be familiar include:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Celiac disease
- Chronic kidney disease
- Chronic liver disease
- Chronic renal disease
- Diabetes (3)
Obstacles involved in managing chronic conditions
The development of a chronic illness can be overwhelming, and there are numerous obstacles in chronic disease management, such as finding reliable health information, understanding and managing associated comorbidities, and addressing adverse health effects of prescription medications. (18)
Finding reliable information
For individuals with chronic conditions, finding reliable information and resources for coping can be challenging. (12) With the evolution of technology, there are now many tools and a wealth of information available on the web.
eHealth sources can assist users with booking medical appointments and refilling prescriptions, and many individuals also use these platforms to learn more about their condition. (3)(7) It has been reported that over 75% of American adults aged 18 to 75 have researched a medical condition on the internet. (8) While exploring the web, be sure to exercise caution and look for online sources that are verified and recommended by a trusted healthcare practitioner.
Understanding the wider health implications, or comorbidities, of a specific chronic condition is also necessary. Chronic anemia, for example, is a common condition that often develops alongside other chronic inflammatory or infectious illnesses. (14) The persistence of chronic conditions can also affect an individual’s mental health and lead to further chronic conditions, such as depression and anxiety. (13)(16)
Addressing long-term effects of medications
Further, the effects of long-term administration of prescription medications can lead to adverse health effects and may deplete key nutrients. Having a complementary set of supplements to offset the adverse side effects of the necessary medications can be crucial in maintaining a strong quality of life. (4) Be sure to refer to an integrative practitioner to explore the supplements best suited for you.
Addressing chronic disease: the role of self-care and social support
Chronic illnesses often require complementing medical prescriptions with lifestyle changes. Patients may often become their own caregivers, developing a regime involving exercise, diet, and supplements. (2)
Many factors affect a person’s ability to self-care for their chronic condition. (12) Knowledge of their condition, environment, availability of resources, and health status all contribute to one’s ability to self-manage. (13) Research has found that receiving education about their condition and how to self-manage is one of the primary barriers to a strong quality of life for those living with chronic illness. (12)
Individuals recently diagnosed with a chronic condition may rely on community-based support, including eHealth sources, in order to learn more about prevention methods and coping mechanisms. (3)(16) Integrating care into all areas of life increases reliance on community and family structures in order to be successful. For example, having to follow a certain diet to reduce the symptoms of a chronic disease can be difficult to maintain, particularly for an individual living with a growing family with particular palates. (10) While integrating personal care with family care can be difficult, it can improve the health of every family member and strengthen the support structure for the patient. (14)
A final and necessary part of care for those dealing with chronic conditions is to track their symptoms and how they are feeling, both physically and mentally. (18) Tracking one’s health is essential for managing chronic illness and can help inform practitioner recommendations to improve lifestyle.
5 lifestyle recommendations for preventing and managing chronic disease
While chronic conditions can differ significantly in their treatments, there are common lifestyle changes that help prevent and manage a variety of chronic conditions.
1. Minimize use of cigarettes and alcohol
Cigarettes, often correlated with inflammation and infection, inhibit one’s ability to circulate blood effectively throughout the entire body. Similarly, alcohol can contribute to inflammation and flare up of symptoms, including anemia and comorbid conditions such as mental health issues. (9)(16)
2. Exercise regularly
Regular physical activity may reduce the prevalence of symptoms for many conditions, such as chronic kidney disease, diabetes, and osteoarthritis. (13)(15) Both aerobic exercise (e.g., running, swimming) and strength training (e.g., weight lifting, plyometrics) have been shown to be beneficial for individuals with numerous chronic diseases. (1)
Special considerations for exercise may be indicated for certain chronic illnesses, please consult your practitioner for safe exercise recommendations.
3. Maintain a healthy diet
Dietary recommendations vary between health conditions, and may include dietary patterns that focus on foods rich in certain nutrients, such as those depleted by specific medications. (4) Overall, studies have demonstrated that consuming nutrient- and anti-oxidant-rich foods can be beneficial for individuals with chronic illnesses, as many chronic illnesses are linked to diminished anti-oxidant activity. (15)
Making diet a priority can also benefit the whole family. Research has shown that families with one member who has a chronic illness tend to follow the same dietary recommendations, ultimately positively contributing to the health of the whole family. (6)
Check with your integrative medical practitioner for specific dietary recommendations that will benefit you.
4. Put mental health first
As mentioned above, mental health can be a major obstacle to wellness, especially for people coping with chronic conditions. (8) Stress can be a major trigger for the onset of chronic illness, and making sure to take care of mental well-being can contribute to good health and optimal quality of life. (11)
Download our infographic on 7 tips for self-care.
5. Focus on preventative care
By following medical advice and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, you may be able to prevent flare-ups of symptoms associated with your condition. Preventative care can also minimize the severity of symptoms and prevent the development of comorbid conditions, such as mental health issues.
Patients with chronic conditions also tend to be more likely to actively seek preventative measures for other conditions. For example, patients diagnosed with diabetes or chronic heart diseases were more likely to get a flu shot and preventative cholesterol tests. (16)
The bottom line
If you have been recently diagnosed with a chronic condition or are struggling to cope with a pre-existing chronic illness, please consult your practitioner to learn more about improving your quality of life.
There are many different kinds of chronic illnesses, and despite the many differences, individuals with chronic illnesses can benefit from seeking long-term solutions, including finding social support and incorporating lifestyle modifications. Compassion for yourself and for others dealing with their own chronic illnesses can help support the transition to long-term wellness.
- Barlow, J. H. (1998). Understanding exercise in the context of chronic disease: an exploratory investigation of self-efficacy. Perceptual and motor skills, 87(2), 439-446.
- Bodenheimer, T., Wagner, E. H., & Grumbach, K. (2002). Improving primary care for patients with chronic illness. Jama, 288(14), 1775-1779.
- Duplaga M. (2015). A cross-sectional study assessing determinants of the attitude to the introduction of eHealth services among patients suffering from chronic conditions. BMC Medical Informatics and Decision making, 15, 33. doi:10.1186/s12911-015-0157-3
- Fouque D, Mitch WE. Dietary approaches to kidney diseases. In: Skorecki K, Chertow GM, Marsden PA, Taal MW, Yu ASL, eds. Brenner and Rector’s The Kidney. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 61.
- Geist, R. A. (1979). Onset of chronic illness in children and adolescents: Psychotherapeutic and consultative intervention. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 49(1), 4–23. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1939-0025.1979.tb02581.x
- Gregory, S. (2005). Living with chronic illness in the family setting. Sociology of Health & Illness, 27(3), 372-392.
- Lin, E. H., Katon, W., Von Korff, M., Rutter, C., Simon, G. E., Oliver, M., … & Young, B. (2004). Relationship of depression and diabetes self-care, medication adherence, and preventive care. Diabetes care, 27(9), 2154-2160.
- Madrigal, L., & Escoffery, C. (2019). Electronic health behaviors among US adults with chronic disease: cross-sectional survey. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 21(3), e11240. doi:10.2196/11240
- Myers, B., Lund, C., Lombard, C., Joska, J., Levitt, N., Butler, C., … Sorsdahl, K. (2018). Comparing dedicated and designated models of integrating mental health into chronic disease care: Study protocol for a cluster randomized controlled trial. Trials, 19(1), 185. doi:10.1186/s13063-018-2568-9
- Newsom, J. T., Huguet, N., McCarthy, M. J., Ramage-Morin, P., Kaplan, M. S., Bernier, J., … Oderkirk, J. (2012). Health behavior change following chronic illness in middle and later life. The Journals of Gerontology. Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67(3), 279–288. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbr103
- Penn State. (2017, October 16). Family members play an important role in managing chronic illness. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 21, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/10/171016132642.htm
- Rosland, A. M., & Piette, J. D. (2010). Emerging models for mobilizing family support for chronic disease management: A structured review. Chronic illness, 6(1), 7–21. doi:10.1177/1742395309352254
- Schulman‐Green, D., Jaser, S., Martin, F., Alonzo, A., Grey, M., McCorkle, R., … & Whittemore, R. (2012). Processes of self‐management in chronic illness. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 44(2), 136-144.
- Schulman-Green, D., Jaser, S. S., Park, C., & Whittemore, R. (2016). A metasynthesis of factors affecting self-management of chronic illness. Journal of advanced nursing, 72(7), 1469–1489. doi:10.1111/jan.12902
- Tabak, C., Smit, H. A., Heederik, D., Ocke, M. C., & Kromhout, D. (2001). Diet and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: independent beneficial effects of fruits, whole grains, and alcohol (the MORGEN study). Clinical & Experimental Allergy, 31(5), 747-755.
- Weiss, G., & Goodnough, L. T. (2005). Anemia of chronic disease. New England Journal of Medicine, 352(10), 1011-1023.
- Willett, W. C., Koplan, J. P., Nugent, R., Dusenbury, C., Puska, P., & Gaziano, T. A. (2006). Prevention of chronic disease by means of diet and lifestyle changes. In Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries. 2nd edition. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank.
- van Houtum, L., Rijken, M., & Groenewegen, P. (2015). Do everyday problems of people with chronic illness interfere with their disease management?. BMC public health, 15, 1000. doi:10.1186/s12889-015-2303-3
- Vizer, L. M., Eschler, J., Koo, B. M., Ralston, J., Pratt, W., & Munson, S. (2019). “It’s not just technology, it’s people”: Constructing a conceptual model of shared health informatics for tracking in chronic illness management. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 21(4), e10830. doi:10.2196/10830
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