Research by the National Institute of Public Health and public health experts at San Diego-based National University suggests that making lifestyle changes and seeking medical care that can prevent and/or keep common health problems under control can not only relieve physical suffering but psychological distress, as well.
The researchers found that people with common, chronic medical issues, such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure), have an increased risk of suffering from potentially work-impacting psychiatric problems.
Consequences of Chronic Disease
In the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) online journal “Preventing Chronic Disease: Public Health Research, Practice and Policy,” the research team pointed out that over the past hundred years, chronic diseases have become extremely common in the US and have surpassed infectious diseases as a leading cause of death. In fact, half of the US population has at least one chronic disease.
Seven out of ten deaths are attributed to these chronic conditions and several are now important public health issues. For example, heart disease is one of the top chronic diseases of concern. CDC statistics show it kills nearly 380,000 Americans and causes about 720,000 heart attacks in the US each year. In addition, widespread obesity has led to an epidemic of type 2 diabetes.
Research shows that the number of Americans who are living with more than one of these and other chronic conditions is growing. According to the National University researchers, exploring how and why these common health disorders coexist is key to finding integrated health care strategies that can diagnose, treat and, hopefully, prevent many of these diseases and their often serious impacts on lives.
This is important not only to alleviate the personal suffering caused by chronic conditions but also to reduce their economic toll on organizations. According to the CDC:
- Obesity and related chronic diseases (including type 2 diabetes and hypertension) cost employers up to $93 billion per year in health insurance claims.
- Indirect costs of chronic health problems, including absenteeism, disability, or reduced work output, may be several times higher than direct medical costs.
- Productivity losses related to personal and family chronic health problems cost U.S. employers $1,685 per employee per year, or $225.8 billion annually.
Chronic Medical Conditions and Mental Health
For their study, Gina M. Piane, DrPH, MPH, and her National University public health team studied data collected from a large survey of Californians with chronic and common health problems. In all, information was collected from almost 40,000 people who participated in the California Health Interview Survey. The researchers zeroed in on patients who reported either one or more chronic disorders, including hypertension, asthma, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
They also collected information on psychiatric distress or impairment, such as anxiety, panic attacks and depression. Survey participants used several scales to measure and report their symptoms and feelings – such as nervousness and feeling helpless and hopeless — that typically indicate potential psychiatric disorders. The research subjects also reported to what extent these problems interfered with their daily work and personal lives.
The results revealed that people with one chronic ailment were about 1.5 times more likely to have experienced psychological distress than people with no chronic health problems. The risk for emotional and psychiatric problems increased significantly with each additional chronic illness a person reported. Those with four chronic health problems had almost five times the risk for psychiatric and emotional distress.
“Participants who were overweight or obese, non-Hispanic black, older, and who smoked had the heaviest burden of chronic disease and psychiatric distress and impairment. Failure to address the burgeoning needs of this hard-to-reach, highest-risk population will have a significant effect on the US health care system now and in the future,” Dr. Piane and her colleagues wrote. “Further research is needed to identify ways to integrate mental health and chronic disease prevention in primary care.”