Understanding Chronic Conditions

Many people live with chronic conditions, which can cause illness, disability and even death. The term chronic conditions describe a broad range of health conditions, including:

  • chronic and complex health conditions
  • mental illness
  • trauma
  • disability
  • genetic disorders.

Chronic conditions:

  • have complex and multiple causes
  • may occur as a single condition in a person, or along with other diseases (comorbidity)
  • usually progress gradually
  • can occur at any age, although they are more common as people get older
  • can affect quality of life
  • can create limitations and disability
  • are not usually immediately life-threatening, but can shorten life expectancy.

Because of better treatments and management plans, people are living longer with chronic conditions. There are many types of chronic conditions that affect people’s health, including:

  • cancer
  • cardiovascular conditions
  • chronic eye conditions 
  • diabetes
  • endometriosis​​​​
  • kidney disease
  • musculoskeletal conditions
  • neurological conditions 
  • rare diseases 
  • lung and respiratory conditions.

Chronic conditions are very common. Half of all people have at least 1 of the 8 major chronic conditions: arthritis, asthma, back pain, cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and mental health conditions.

Many chronic conditions are not life threatening in the short term. However, they can worsen over time and become more serious. Chronic conditions can lower your quality of life and may affect your independence.

You can take an active role in managing your chronic condition. Reducing risk factors can help prevent some conditions. You can work with your doctor and specialist to manage your condition and improve your quality of life.

Some chronic conditions are not preventable (type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis) because they are genetic or the cause is unknown. Other chronic conditions (type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, some lung diseases and stroke) can sometimes develop because of risk factors people can change.

Things you can do to reduce the risk of developing a preventable chronic condition include:

  • quitting smoking
  • getting enough physical activity
  • reducing your alcohol intake
  • eating well
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • maintaining healthy blood pressure
  • having good cholesterol levels

Chronic conditions can be complex. Diagnosing them can be complex as well. Your doctor can help you if you have some problems or symptoms that worry you. Your doctor can order some diagnostic tests to see if they can work out what is wrong. Tests might include:

  • blood tests
  • X-rays
  • CT or MRI scans
  • Ultrasounds

Your doctor might refer you to a specialist if they cannot diagnose your problem or have diagnosed a condition, but think you need more help. The specialist you need to see will depend on your symptoms and diagnosis.

People living with a chronic condition will need to manage it long term, perhaps for the rest of their lives. You can take an active role in managing your condition, because treating the symptoms of your chronic condition can improve your quality of life. You can manage it by:

  • visiting your doctor or specialist
  • having a healthy lifestyle, including eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep
  • taking your prescribed medicines
  • following your management plan, if you have one.