Chronic diseases

Understanding Chronic Diseases and How They Can Be Prevented

Long-term, chronic conditions such as heart disease and cancer are the leading cause of death around the world.

In the USA alone, according to the CDC, 60% of adults have been diagnosed and are living with a chronic disease, amounting to trillions of dollars in health care costs each year. While these diseases are often life-threatening, the risk of developing them can be reduced by making healthier lifestyle choices.

Here we look at what chronic diseases are, how they can be prevented and why a functional medicine approach can be effective in managing these illnesses.

Chronic disease examples

What Are Chronic Diseases?

A broad definition of chronic disease is any condition or illness that lasts for more than a year. In many cases, the individual needs to manage their condition over several years, either through having medical treatment or by changing their lifestyle.

The most common chronic diseases include:

  • Heart disease: The leading cause of death globally is coronary heart disease and there are many different risk factors associated with the condition.
  • Stroke: This is a life-threatening disease where the blood supply is cut to a part of the brain and can often lead to major disability.
  • Cancer: Nearly 2 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the USA during 2020, according to the American Cancer Society.

Diabetes: Poor diet choices and lack of exercise mean those diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are unable to convert food to energy properly. Diabetes is generally linked to problems of obesity.

Causes and Risk Factors Associated With Chronic Diseases

Most chronic diseases are linked by several biological factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity. We can also lower our risk by making lifestyle changes that improve our health.

With some diseases, such as cancer, there are also genetic and age-related risk factors to be considered.

Social Factors

Social factors include whether an individual is born into a poor family or a risky environment. According to WHO, those in lower socio-economic areas are more likely to develop and die from chronic diseases.

Lifestyle Factors

Generally speaking, the biggest contributing factors relate to the lifestyle choices we make. People who smoke or drink excessively, for example, are more likely to develop heart disease, cancer and diabetes. A sedentary lifestyle and poor food choices are also critical risk factors in many chronic diseases.

Biological Factors

Humans are living longer than before and this means there is a greater risk of developing a chronic illness as we grow older. This is particularly pertinent with degenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. There are also some genetic factors associated with illnesses such as cancer.

Preventing the Development of Chronic Diseases

  • Stop smoking: One of the biggest risk factors associated with chronic disease is smoking. According to the CDC, it increases the risk of developing heart disease by 2 to 4 times and increases our risk 25 times for lung cancer.
  • Drink in moderation: Excessive alcohol consumption can have a huge impact on the body, causing damage to the liver and kidneys, and raising blood pressure. It is also a risk factor in mouth, throat and stomach cancer as well as heart disease and stroke.
  • Maintain a healthy diet: One of the biggest lifestyle changes that people can make to reduce their risk of chronic disease is to eat a healthy diet and lose weight.
  • Exercise regularly: In tandem with a healthy diet, regular exercise is another way to reduce risk. We should aim to perform at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week and avoid living a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Screening: Another way to reduce the risk of chronic disease is to have regular check-ups. When illnesses such as heart disease and cancer are discovered early, they tend to be easier to manage and treat.
Man giving up smoking

The Functional Medicine Approach to Managing Chronic Illnesses

Treating chronic diseases is one of the biggest healthcare challenges we face today. A functional medicine approach focuses on what things can be done to reduce the potential for developing a particular disease in the first place or managing it once diagnosed.

One of the main principles of functional medicine is the notion that every individual is different and a patient-centred approach to treatment is essential.

The big question that needs to be answered is, ‘what is causing the individual to be ill?’. There can be various root causes such as a poor diet, bad habits such as smoking or lack of exercise, as well as underlying genetic factors that make a big difference.

Functional medicine takes a holistic approach and the starting point is often the diet of the individual. Practitioners don’t just look at giving the individual a dose of medicine. They will come at a health issue from several different angles including lifestyle, environment and genetics.

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