someone getting their blood pressure taken

What Is a Comorbidity, Exactly?

By Leah Campbell
Reviewed by Daniel Lew, M.D.
February 27, 2023

According to research, 45 percent of the U.S. population—133 million people—live with at least one chronic condition. These include heart disease, diabetes, psoriasis, asthma, arthritis, cancer, and any other disease that can be long-lasting and often debilitating. Living with and managing any one of these conditions can take a toll, and having two or more usually presents additional challenges. Researchers say that far too many patients with chronic illnesses have comorbidities.

What Is a Comorbidity?

People have comorbidities when they have at least two health conditions at the same time, according to Michael Billet, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland.

“The conditions can be completely distinct, but usually they interact with each other, which can make them both more difficult to manage,” says Billet. “They tend to be chronic conditions that a patient lives with and manages long-term.”

It is entirely possible for one patient to have multiple, completely unrelated conditions, but there are plenty of comorbidities that commonly occur together because they have the same underlying disease process.

“Most of the time the diseases are related and fall along a spectrum; they are part of the same mechanism,” says Puja Uppal, D.O., a family medicine physician in Pinckney, Michigan. “Thus, the second disease occurs as a consequence of the first.”

While older people are more likely to suffer from comorbidities, anyone with a chronic health condition is at risk of developing another.

What Are Some Common Comorbidities?

“Common comorbidities include obesity and diabetes,” says Billet. “Other common comorbidities are tobacco use and chronic lung disease; HIV and kidney disease.”

A single chronic condition can lead to many commonly associated comorbidities by affecting different organs of the body. For instance, research has shown that people with diabetes can also have hypertension, chronic pulmonary disease, kidney disease, and heart failure. Additionally, mental illnesses are among the most common comorbidities for patients with substance use disorders.

Preventing Comorbidities

Dealing with one chronic condition is hard enough, so many people with one chronic condition want to know what they can do to prevent the development of comorbidities.

Uppal says that the best way to accomplish that goal is to educate yourself on your disease process. What are the various risk factors associated with your condition? How can you improve your overall health so that you aren’t as susceptible to various comorbidities?

“Focus on small changes that can have an impact on multiple diseases,” Billet said. “For example, a patient with diabetes is at risk for developing coronary artery disease and hypertension, and they would see a benefit in potentially preventing those comorbidities from developing by exercising regularly, making healthy food choices, and limiting (or ideally, completely avoiding) alcohol and tobacco use. Always make sure to keep regular appointments with primary care doctors and specialists.”

By doing what you can to protect your overall health and improve your current condition, you can get your body to a place where you hopefully won’t be as susceptible to the development of additional conditions.

Catch Comorbidities Early

To prevent comorbidities from developing or to catch them early, it’s important to know the most common comorbidities and the symptoms associated with your chronic illness. You may not be able to prevent them completely, but you want to look out for signs of those comorbidities and try to address them as early as possible. For example, up to 30 percent of people with psoriasis develop psoriatic arthritis and so they should keep an eye on arthritic symptoms, such as joint aches and swelling.

It is also always a good idea to see your doctor for regular checkups to help identify early symptoms that may be signs of a new comorbidity.

Managing Existing Comorbidities

If you’ve been diagnosed with comorbidities, you likely see specialists for each of your conditions. While each specialist is an expert in their respective field, it’s also a good idea to have a general practitioner who can help you manage your overall health and coordinate the care of those conditions.

“We’re fine-tuning your multiple comorbidities; with the goal of treating all of your conditions in a whole-person approach,” says Uppal. “The whole body works together, not in isolation.”

This is especially important when taking more than one medication. “The risk of medication side effects increases exponentially with the number of medications, so keep all of your doctors looped in if a medication is added or a dose is changed,” says Billet.

If you don’t have a general practitioner you trust, go out and find one. Ask friends for recommendations, look at online reviews, and don’t be afraid to try a few out in search of the right fit.

A general practitioner is aware of all of your comorbidities, and they can help you find any specialist you need. By assembling an A-team to assist you in the treatment of your conditions, you can ensure that you are on the right track to living the healthiest life possible.

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