Why having one chronic disease can lead to another

The saying, “One thing leads to another,” is especially applicable when talking about chronic disease. The CDC defines chronic disease as a medical condition lasting at least one year requiring ongoing medical attention or limits activities of daily living or both. Approximately half of all Americans will have a chronic disease at some point in their lives.

Much of what determines the likelihood of someone being diagnosed with a chronic disease is correlated with many social determents such as a person’s education, income, lifestyle, and family history. However, another determinant is whether a person already has at least one chronic disease, to begin with. For example, a person maybe has struggled with obesity for a good portion of their life. There’s a good chance that their obesity may lead to other chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and some types of cancer. Having one chronic disease can become a vicious cycle leading to others.

There’s an interrelationship among chronic diseases. Many of these conditions are risk factors for each other, creating a domino effect.  For instance, if a person has uncontrolled type 2 diabetes, it will raise their risk for heart attacks and stroke. Chronic diseases that are not managed well often involve damage to blood vessels making deposits of cholesterol and plaque buildup on the vessel walls that lead to stiffness, narrowing, and blockages that can result in a heart attack or stroke.

But what if a chronic disease is well controlled?  Does that help?  It can but diseases such as diabetes still raise a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease by 21%.

Autoimmune diseases are another type of chronic disease linked to one another. There are many types of autoimmune diseases that include rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s disease, lupus, and ulcerative colitis. Autoimmune diseases develop when a person’s own immune system mistakenly attacks body tissue as if they were a foreign invader. Once you have an autoimmune disease, you’re more likely to have others due to the immune system’s defect.

Other chronic conditions that are linked together include:

  • Sleep apnea and high blood pressure

Obstructive sleep apnea causes temporary pauses in breathing during sleep. This is usually the result of a person’s airway being blocked by the tongue or throat tissue. During the night when a person has pauses in their breathing, oxygen levels drop putting stress on the heart. Once the person breathes in the air abruptly, this leads to a surge in stress hormones increasing heart rate and blood pressure. Numerous apnea episodes like this occurring night after night will eventually lead to high blood pressure.

  • Obesity and joint problems

The joints – particularly the ankles, knees, and hips – carry the weight of the body. The heavier a person is, the harder these joints must work. It doesn’t take much of a weight gain to affect joint health. A gain of 15 pounds can increase the force in the hips and knees by about three times that weight with normal walking being felt by the knees as an extra 45 pounds. This can lead to the painful and debilitating hastening of wearing-away of cartilage or osteoarthritis.

  • Hearing loss and cognitive decline

The inability to hear leads to an inability to communicate. When unable to communicate this leads to fewer social interactions among other people which in turn, can increase the risk of dementia.

What can be done?

Having a chronic disease can feel like a life sentence but it doesn’t have to. The first step is to be involved with the care and management of your disease. Work closely with your doctor and ask to understand the risk of associated chronic diseases.

If you have a chronic disease, it helps to be tested for others.  For example, having sleep apnea puts you at a higher risk for high blood pressure. Checking your blood pressure regularly can help discover when it begins to rise and then have a plan to control it. Everyone with diabetes should also be checked periodically for hypertension, kidney function, and cholesterol levels. In addition, having diabetes means you need to pay attention to good foot care, see your optometrist or ophthalmologist yearly for eye exams to prevent serious complications.

Lastly, take the best care of yourself as much as possible. Eat nutritious foods, exercise often choosing activities you can do and enjoy, have a plan to reduce stress, take prescribed medications, and learn to live well with your disease.

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