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A chronic condition is a human health condition or disease that is long-lasting and/or persistent. Such conditions may not be strictly physical; for example, both behavioral disorders and depression may be long-lasting conditions. Most chronic conditions cannot be cured, though treatment often helps to manage them. They are the most common types of health problems and the leading cause of death and disability in the world. About half of all Americans have one or more chronic medical conditions.

Scope of the Problem

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1.7 million deaths in the United States—70 percent—are caused by chronic diseases and conditions each year. World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that chronic diseases are the major cause of death around the world. Some of the most common ailments are allergies, Alzheimer's disease, arthritis, asthma, breast cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, glaucoma, heart disease, and obesity. In addition, WHO includes vision and hearing problems, genetic disorders, and oral health issues as worldwide chronic concerns.

Figures from the Center for Managing Chronic Disease indicate 11.5 percent of American adults had heart disease (2011), 18.9 million adults had asthma (2011), 11.9 percent of adults older than twenty had diabetes (2012), and 69.2 percent of adults older than twenty were overweight (2009). Breast cancer was the most common cancer in women (2011) and ranked first as the cause of death in women (2011). Many individuals have more than one chronic condition. These health problems also affect many children. Asthma, diabetes, and being overweight are some of the most common long-term health conditions children face.

WHO reported in 2005 that the number of people who die from chronic diseases is double that of those dying of infectious diseases, pregnancy-related conditions, and malnutrition. The vast majority of chronic disease deaths—80 percent—occurred in countries with low or middle incomes. The organization predicted a steady increase in such deaths.

Contributing Factors

Some chronic conditions are associated with unhealthy behaviors. The CDC pinpoints excessive alcohol intake, tobacco use, lack of exercise, and poor nutrition as the most damaging health risk behaviors. For example, 38 percent of adults and 36 percent of adolescents polled for a study admitted they ate fruit less than once a day, and only about half of adults met recommendations for physical activity.

While individuals may modify some lifestyle factors such as using tobacco or exercising regularly, age and genetics are beyond one's control. This has led researchers to study the genetic aspects of many illnesses.

Arthritis is a common chronic condition often associated with age. An estimated one-third of Americans have arthritis or joint pain. Some forms, such as osteoarthritis, generally develop with age, though obesity can put stress on some joints and wear down the cartilage that cushions the bones. Repetitive movements or lifting—actions often related to employment—may also lead to arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis, another chronic disease, is caused by the immune system attacking itself. Arthritis treatment often consists of pain management medications and therapies and sometimes requires surgery.

Mental and Behavioral Health Issues

Chronic mental health and substance use disorders may require complicated treatment plans and rely upon the patient's involvement in treatment. The goal is generally to help a person achieve a better quality of life and capability to function. Treatment for these conditions may include medication and counseling. Children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and other learning issues may require intervention from an early age and for many years.

Depression often affects individuals with chronic illnesses. This may occur in a perpetual cycle, with illness leading to or increasing depression and depression further affecting one's health. Depression may cause an individual to stop following a treatment plan, become less active, engage in unhealthy activities such as drinking or smoking, or eat unhealthy foods.

Economic and Social Issues

Chronic illness treatment accounts for large amounts of health care spending in the United States. According to the CDC, 84 percent of health care spending in 2006 was for those with chronic illnesses. In 2010 an estimated $193 billion was spent directly in treating heart disease and stroke patients. In addition to direct costs, funds were spent on operational and administrative costs.

Chronic illness also affects businesses and the economy. Loss of productivity attributed to chronic conditions is estimated to be in the billions of dollars every year. Decreased productivity related to diabetes in 2012 alone was estimated at $69 billion.

Researchers have found strong connections between poverty and chronic conditions. A Gallup report in 2011 found that depression affected about 30 percent of adults whose incomes were below the poverty line compared to about 15 percent of those not living in poverty. The report found that those living in poverty were also more likely to have asthma, be obese, or smoke. Of those living below the poverty line and above the poverty line, about half reported exercising for thirty minutes at least three times a week. Although those living in poverty were less likely to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily, only about 83 percent said that getting affordable fresh produce was easy.

WHO cites a number of factors that affect health and may lead to chronic diseases. These include globalization, urbanization, and an aging population, which all affect societies and economies. The organization also points to poverty as a factor that causes chronic diseases—which in turn can lead to more poverty. Such health issues develop in part because of stress, high-risk living, and working conditions, as well as the shortage or absence of adequate health care in poor communities.


"Arthritis Basics." WebMD. WebMD. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.

"Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 9 May 2014. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.

"Chronic Diseases and Their Common Risk Factors." World Health Organization. World Health Organization. 2005. Web. 15 Jan. 2015. PDF.

"Chronic Disease Statistics." Center for Managing Chronic Disease. University of Michigan. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.

Gelber, Suzanne and Richard H. Dougherty. "Disease Management for Chronic Behavioral Health and Substance Use Disorders." Center for Health Care Strategies, Inc. Center for Health Care Strategies. Web. 15 Jan. 2015. PDF.

Kurtzleben, Danielle. "Americans in Poverty at Greater Risk for Chronic Health Problems." U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report LP. 30 Oct. 2012. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.

"What Is Chronic Disease?" Center for Managing Chronic Disease. University of Michigan. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.

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