Chronic illnesses affect millions of individuals worldwide, reshaping the landscape of modern healthcare. Yet, despite their prevalence, the origins of these conditions often remain elusive. In this article, we embark on a journey to unravel the intricate web of factors contributing to chronic illnesses, seeking a deeper understanding of why some individuals are more susceptible than others. Join us as we delve into the multifaceted world of chronic diseases, exploring genetics, lifestyle, environmental influences, and emerging research that sheds light on the complex tapestry of causation.
Unfortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as six in every ten adults in the U.S. have a chronic illness. Four in every ten U.S. adults have more than one of these medical conditions.
As they can be prevalent, long term, and in some cases serious, it can be vital for healthcare professionals to formulate a diagnosis quickly in order to save the patient’s life. Proper and early diagnosis can certainly ensure that the patient is able to “live well” with a prolonged illness and get the treatment needed to control it.
Treatment can vary from the steps involved in making a complete recovery to simply helping patients manage their lifelong conditions without becoming even more unwell. Some healthcare support is directed at making it possible for the patient to remain independent, active, and working, despite this long-standing medical issue.
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Examples of chronic illnesses
So, what sort of diseases and conditions are we talking about?
The types of illnesses classified as “chronic” include diabetes, heart disease, cancers, asthma, and arthritis. Other examples include various dementia-causing conditions, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Vascular Dementia. ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Cystic Fibrosis (CF) are further illustrations of what a chronic illness is. This category of health issues also includes eating disorders.
Causes of chronic illnesses
As you can see from the above list, there are a wide range of diseases and conditions that can last over a year or for a lifetime. This also means that the likely causes can be highly varied.
In some cases, the reasons that certain diseases affect some people and not others are still a medical conundrum. Alzheimer’s Disease is a vivid example of that. Medical scientists the world over are working to understanding the cause of this terrible condition, which in 2023 affected 6.7 million Americans aged 65 and above. Alzheimer’s can also limit the lives of people much younger than that. According to the National Institute on Aging “The causes probably include a combination of age-related changes in the brain, along with genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. The importance of any one of these factors in increasing or decreasing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s may differ from person to person.” The use of the word “probably” indicates just how much more we need to know about this disease. From this better understanding will come an increased possibility of slowing its progress or potentially even finding a cure one day.
Genetics and chronic illness
Another highly-significant word in the quote from the National Institute of Aging is “genetic.” Medical scientists believe that the cause of some chronic illnesses may lie in our family genes. At the very least, it is becoming clear that having some medical conditions already in families indicates an increased risk that their children will one day develop the same illness.
However, sometimes the genetic link to a cause is irrefutable and already established by medical science. A clear example of this is cystic fibrosis. People who have CF – which involves a thick, sticky mucus that builds up in their organs – have inherited two faulty genes, one from each parent.
Some chronic illnesses are not necessarily inevitable, even if they feature in your family medical history. Though you have an increased risk, you may be able to make lifestyle choices that manage that risk and keep you healthy throughout your entire life.
The perfect example of that is some forms of cardiovascular disease, which can be a genetic risk you manage by your lifestyle choices. Arthritis, diabetes, and some types of cancer are other chronic diseases which are believed to have a genetic link but which are not necessarily inevitable.
Issues with diagnosis
Ironically, if there was a clearer line between cause and effect, it would make it easier for healthcare professionals to diagnose chronic illnesses or even to predict their likelihood in an individual patient. For example, you could test a person’s genetic makeup and then map out all illnesses they are vulnerable to.
This sort of pre-illness testing is becoming more available, as both the skills and equipment needed for genomic testing become more advanced. Certain types of cancers can be predicted with greater accuracy now, thanks to a better understanding of what key DNA mutations or variants indicate. However, even this sort of highly-sophisticated diagnostic method is yet to replace the skills of healthcare professionals with regard to getting the right information from the patient.
For instance, a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) is an advanced nursing professional who works within clinics and local medical centers. One of their most vital roles is to establish a relationship with individual patients and families and to create accurate records and updates. This could include family medical histories that lead to a diagnosis but also more contemporary factors that suggest a patient is experiencing a chronic illness. How would FNPs know what questions to ask, what physical attributes to look for, and which tests were required for an accurate diagnosis?
Health care assessment is a skillset that forms a core part of the American International College’s online MSN FNP programs. Confidence, skill in performing physical examinations, and prescribing medications are among the abilities that FNPs develop through a combination of advanced study and practical experience on this program.
Lifestyle and chronic illness
From their evaluation of each patient, one of the things that FNPs are looking for is whether a patient’s lifestyle choices such as smoking and poor diet are the cause of their chronic illness. They also check to see if factors such as nutritional deficits and exercise levels are making an existing medical condition worse or potentially life-threatening.
In closing, while the causes of chronic illness may present a challenging puzzle, there is one unwavering truth: with the dedication and expertise of healthcare professionals, especially nurses, there is hope. Armed with a deep understanding of these conditions’ complexities, nurses provide not only medical care but also empathy and support, empowering patients to manage their illnesses effectively. As science continues to advance, we inch closer to unveiling the mysteries behind chronic illness, paving the way for more effective prevention and treatment strategies. Together, as a global community of caregivers and researchers, we hold the key to a future where chronic illness is better understood, more effectively managed, and where patients can live their lives with optimism and quality care by their side.