A chronic condition is a long lasting illnesses with persistent effects. Examples of common chronic conditions include heart disease, depression, diabetes and cancer. As we get older, there is an increased likelihood of having one or more chronic condition, this is known as multi-morbidity.

Multi-morbidity affects approximately 1 in 5 Australians with the number increasing to 1 in 2 Australians when over 65 years of age. The World Health Organization believes that chronic conditions and multi-morbidity are one of the biggest challenges this century.

A recent study by Prof. Szoeke and colleagues delves into the complexities of multi-morbidities and how this impacts our health.

Prof. Szoeke explains that traditionally, health care has focused on treating one condition at a time, making it very challenging when treating patients with multi-morbidities. For example, you may choose to look at the Dementia Australia website to avoid getting dementia, or the Heart Foundation website to prevent heart disease. It is important to remember however, that behind every condition there is a person, and health is often more complex than managing just one illness at a time.

As a clinician in the field of healthy ageing Prof. Szoeke doesn’t want her patients to feel that focusing on one condition takes priority over another.

She relays the story of a patient who had some concerns about developing dementia, the patient also had diabetes. The patient did some research regarding both dementia and diabetes and they were confronted with conflicting advice for managing both of their conditions, which led them to ask Prof. Szoeke “What’s worse to die from – diabetes or dementia?”, highlighting the complexity of managing their health with more than one chronic condition.

Prof. Szoeke believes a more holistic approach is required when managing patients with multi-morbidity, looking at how the conditions overlap and interact. She believes it is vital to understand the overall impact of living with more than one condition, has on people’s health.

Chronic Disease and ageing

Two main factors contribute to the development chronic diseases as age:

1. We are living longer – compared to 130 years ago, the average Australian can expect to live for an extra 34 years. This means, our cells are experiencing more wear and tear than previously. Research continues into how our cells cope with the ageing process as we live longer.

2. Lifestyle – factors such as exercise, diet, smoking and alcohol are factors that impact ageing and chronic diseases.

Good News

The good news is that research suggests many chronic diseases can be prevented.

The Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance recommends focusing on:

  • Improving nutrition – focusing on diet with plenty of vegetables and fruit
  • Increase physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviour
  • Reducing unhealthy weight at a population level     
  • Increasing health checks

Next steps

Research continues to explore the impacts of multi-morbidity as we age.

Prof. Szoeke and colleagues are soon to launch a new study called the “AgeHAPPY”, which looks at the many impacts of ageing over time, and anyone over the age of 18 is invited to join. To strengthen this research, international collaboration with the University of California San Francisco in the United States of America has led to cutting edge brain assessments included in the study

Prof. Szoeke is expanding her research to consult more with consumers by asking questions such as, “What research is important to you?”.   The traditional academic/clinician led research dynamic is changing.  She explains that ageing is complex and it was the participants of her 30 year-long study who made the recommendation to examine the impacts of grandparenting on health, and this project has now had enormous impact not just locally but internationally. “I want to see a greater focus on providing meaningful research for consumers that is led by consumers” she says.  With all these exciting developments in the field of ageing research, Prof. Szoeke is very pleased that the “complexity of ageing is starting to be unlocked.”

What our consumers say:

 “I look forward to seeing this research translated into effective and holistic treatment plans
for patients. I hear a lot of talk about patients with co-morbidities or multi-morbidities.
The reality is, few medical practitioners seem prepared to treat patients (including me) as a
person with a range of interrelated conditions.”

Judy McCahon
Consumer Representative

“Interesting to see that the average age has increased by 34 years, this is probably due to better living conditions and healthcare. But also, as a population I think we all take this for granted and do not realise that we need to live healthy to get to this. Improving diet and activity can have amazing results in deterring or even preventing some diagnosis i.e. Diabetes, High Blood Pressure etc. Research is part of the answer but education after the research to encourage change is extremely important.”

Barry Baulch
Consumer Representative