According to the CDC, a chronic disease (otherwise referred to as a chronic condition) is one that lasts for more than a year, and is characterized by a need for ongoing medical attention or a limiting of daily activities. This definition is pretty broad, and can encompass diseases such as Alzheimer’s, arthritis, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and asthma. By some definitions, PCOS and endometriosis could be considered chronic conditions, while in other circles they are not.
Fortunately, in the case of some common chronic conditions, such as heart disease, you can make lifestyle choices that mitigate your chances of developing it, while for others you may be genetically predisposed, and – if you have been recently diagnosed – go on to incorporate holistic medicinal and healing methods that make it easier to live with. In either case, in this article we will be covering more in depth what constitutes a chronic condition, the most common conditions found in women, high risk behaviors that increase your likelihood of developing one, and what to do if you have a chronic condition. Let’s begin!
What is a chronic condition?
As we mentioned earlier, according to the CDC, the criteria for a condition or disease being characterized as “chronic” are the following:
- The condition lasts more than a year, and
- It requires ongoing medical attention, and/or
- It limits your daily activities
As with most things in medicine, though, there is debate. In particular, when, where, and how the term “chronic condition” should be extended. For instance, experts go back and forth on the time span that a disease should last in order to be categorized as chronic, while there is also disagreement regarding whether certain diseases should or should not appear on a chronic diseases list.
In the case of the World Health Organization, they put forward the following criteria for a disease to be considered chronic:
- It is generally not passed from person to person
- It is of long duration and slow progression
- There are four main types:
- Cardiovascular (e.g. heart attacks and stroke)
- Chronic respiratory diseases (e.g. chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma)
As you can see, under the WHO’s definition, HIV would not be considered a chronic condition, while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services list 21 chronic conditions, which include depression, alcohol abuse, autism spectrum disorders, and HIV.
Is PCOS considered a chronic condition?
When we look at the CDC’s current definition of “chronic condition,” we see that PCOS could certainly fall under this category. In particular, if you have suffered symptoms for over a year, and feel you need ongoing care, or find yourself changing your daily living activities to accommodate your PCOS, then this reproductive condition could be considered chronic. However, it’s worth pointing out that – at least on the CDC website – they do not list PCOS (or any other reproductive condition, for that matter) as chronic. Instead, the list is short, with 6 diseases total, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, obesity, and arthritis. (Interestingly, not all cancers can be considered chronic, so there is disagreement within the medical community as to what conditions should show up on a chronic disease list).
For some women with PCOS, having their condition recognized as chronic may not matter, while for others it may be a validation of the pain and the toll PCOS takes on their daily life. Unfortunately, there is not a uniform consensus right now whether PCOS should be considered a chronic disease, and that is both on a national level within the US, as well as internationally. As an example, the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare places heavy emphasis on mental illness and oral disease as examples of chronic conditions, while the US template primarily focuses on the well-known (and increasingly common) offenders: heart disease and diabetes. Still, some literary articles published do list, and consider, PCOS to be a chronic condition that represents “a major health and economic burden.”
Expanding the definition of chronic disease
Soon, it could be that the definition of chronic disease is expanded to include PCOS.
One article posted in the Frontiers in Public Health journal, suggests a simpler view should be taken. Specifically, any disease or condition that persists and occurs over a long time – this may include recurring lower back pain, migraine headaches, PCOS, endometriosis, and more – could fall under the ‘chronic condition’ umbrella. Indeed, what matters most – as opposed to the exact length of a time a condition has persisted over – is the fact that these health concerns “can be quite costly to manage and are justifiably emotionally and physically taxing for patients and their caregivers.” Indeed, in the case of PCOS, it can be a time-consuming, resource-heavy condition that exerts major emotional and psychological stress over the people who struggle with it (demonstrated not least by the fact that women with PCOS are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression than their counterparts).
Most common chronic conditions in women
Before we discuss the prevalence of chronic conditions in women, and the most concerning ones, let’s quickly touch on how chronic conditions are prevailing in general across the US. Here’s some quick statistics from the CDC:
- 6 in 10 US adults have a chronic disease
- 4 in 10 US adults have 2 or more chronic diseases
- Chronic diseases are major drivers of the US’ $4.1 trillion healthcare costs annually
Clearly, chronic diseases are a serious problem nationwide, and if you have been diagnosed with a chronic disease, you are in the majority of the population.
So what are the most common chronic conditions in women?
Well, according to the US’ government’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), cardiovascular disease is the number 1 killer of women worldwide. In the US, 48 million women are living with cardiovascular disease, and “experts estimate that one in three women will die of heart disease or stroke, compared to the 1 in 25 who will die of breast cancer.” In fact, in the US, 1 in 4 women will die of heart disease (which, along with coronary artery disease and blood vessel diseases, falls under the wider category of cardiovascular disease). Unfortunately, health outcomes for women after things like a heart attack are not as good as for men: 42% of women who experience a heart attack will die in the next year compared to just 24% of men. Researchers aren’t exactly sure on the full picture as to why, but at least part of the problem seems to be that women receive less aggressive medical treatment than men when it comes to heart disease (likely closely tied to the rife medical gaslighting that proliferates the healthcare system).
Another chronic condition that affects women more commonly than men is osteoporosis. This is a disease “that results in bone loss . . . bone mass becomes low and the structure of the bone tissue deteriorates, increasing the risk of fracture.” According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 1 in 2 women will suffer a fracture over the age of 50 due to this condition, compared to 1 in 4 men. Unfortunately, of those women over 50 who experience a hip fracture due to osteoporosis, 25% of those women will die within a year, and another 50% will never walk independently again.
Diabetes is a chronic condition that, as of 2015, affected almost 12 million US women, but this number will likely have increased since then. Diabetes is a risk on its own, as the toll of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) puts strain on one’s blood vessels, eyesight, and blood flow. Diabetes is also a major problem because it significantly increases one’s chances of dying from complications arising from other chronic diseases. For instance, according to the WHO:
- Adults with diabetes have a 2x to 3x risk of heart attack and stroke
- Diabetic retinopathy is a significant cause of blindness (and a result of long-term damage to small blood vessels in the retina). The WHO estimates almost 1 million people are blind as a result of diabetes.
- Diabetes is one of the leading causes of kidney failure.
Though many symptoms of diabetes in men are similar to in women, there are a few symptoms that are unique to women, including:
- Vaginal and oral yeast infections
- High levels of glucose in the blood can trigger the growth of fungus responsible for vagunal yeast infections, oral yeast infections, and vaginal thrush. Sympoms of an infection include itching, soreness, pain during sex, and vaginal discharge. Oral yeast infections are characterized by a white coating on the tongue and inside the mouth.
- Urinary infections
- UTIs are more common in women with diabetes, this is thought to be the result of a compromised immune system thanks to increased blood sugar levels. Symptoms of a UTI include painful urination, burning sensation while peeing, and bloody or cloudy urine. Just as with UTIs brought on by non-diabetic causes, UTIs should be watched carefully as – if not treated – can lead bacteria to progress to the kidneys.
- Female sexual dysfunction
- Diabetic neuropathy is a result of high blood glucose damaging nerve fibers. This can lead to loss of feeling in parts of the lower body and reduce women’s sex drive.
How to reduce your chances of developing a chronic disease
As we have covered more in depth in other articles, there appears to be a link between certain conditions – such as PCOS – and chronic diseases, like diabetes. This indicates that some individuals may be predisposed toward certain illnesses, comparatively to others. Fortunately, this isn’t prescriptive, and there are lifestyle changes and choices you can make to reduce your likelihood of developing one of the chronic conditions we’ve covered in this article:
- Avoid smoking
According to the CDC, “commercial tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States.” First-hand smoking is most dangerous, accounting for 80-90% of lung cancer cases, and raising your risk for developing diabetes by 30 to 40%. In short: smoking is an extremely high risk behavior, and it should be placed at the top of the priority list when it comes to behaviors to mitigate or eliminate to better your long-term health. To get help quitting smoking, visit this link to get a list of accessible, free CDC-approved resources.
If you routinely inhale second-hand smoke, this is also a risk factor. Though the associations aren’t as dramatic as first-hand smoke, second-hand smoke also places you at 20-30% higher risk for lung cancer and 20% to 30% higher for heart disease and stroke. Though not everyone has the choice to avoid second-hand smoke (some jobs are almost impossible to disentangle from inhaling secondhand smoke), consider – if you have the option – choosing to live with people who don’t smoke inside, avoid sitting outside at restaurants when others are smoking, and ask friends and acquaintances to smoke outside of your presence.
- Incorporate more physical activity
The benefits of exercise on your physical and mental health are numerous, including reducing anxiety and depression, boosting mood, elongating life span, and acting as a primary preventative measure against chronic disease. One study finds that “comprehensive evidence … clearly establishes that lack of physical activity affects almost every cell, organ, and system in the body” and that “physical activity is also a requirement to maximize health span and life span.”
The CDC recommends 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, including “muscle strengthening activities 2 times a week.” Excellent first steps include incorporating a walk into your daily routine, joining a gym with a friend, signing up for exercise classes that soun fun, and walking to work instead of driving. Try to focus on small, consistent changes you can make that you can see yourself enjoying throughout the week. If you enjoy these small lifestyle changes, chances are they will become an automatic habit, as opposed to a task you need to complete every day. If you have a chronic disease, or suspect you do, you should work with your physician to understand how to safely work more exercise into your routine.
- Pay attention to diet
We have multiple articles dedicated to balancing blood sugar levels, finding healthy swaps for your favorite foods, and following a non-restrictive, healthy diet, but in a nutshell: focus on getting more vegetables and fruits. Try to consume more whole foods. Opt for whole grains instead of refined carbohydrates. If available to you as an option, try to cook at home more and eat out less, as you can have more control over what goes into your food. And for the most part, avoid processed, fast foods that are high in sugar and calories, but low in nutritional value.
Interested in learning more about the role of diet and nutrition in your overall health? Read more about listening to hunger cues and tuning into your body here.
Allara Health provides personalized treatment for hormonal, metabolic & gynecological conditions that utilizes a holistic plan that merges nutrition, lifestyle, medication and supplementation, and ongoing, expert support to heal your body.