Multimorbidity — that’s what medical researchers call it when people are diagnosed with more than one chronic illness.
French researcher Céline Ben Hassen, PhD, and her colleagues set out to study whether multimorbidity in midlife or later life was associated with developing dementia — and they found that it was.
What Is Dementia?
By definition, dementia is a syndrome, not a disease, causing impairment of two or more core functions of the brain, like memory, language, attention, and problem-solving. It can also limit brain function enough that normal daily tasks are no longer achievable.
What Did the Research Show?
The report, published in February 2022 in the journal BMJ, studied 10,095 British civil servants who were ages 35 to 55 and dementia-free from 1985 to 1988. The data suggests that those experiencing multimorbidity with chronic illness experienced dementia during midlife at a rate of double the remaining cohort. Risk increased by 18 percent for every five years (younger) that the multimorbidity was diagnosed.
Age 55 appears to be a significant number when researchers reviewed their data. Subjects who had acquired multimorbidity by age 55 were observed to have 2.4 times the risk of developing dementia, compared with those having only one chronic condition.
Having more than two chronic conditions at age 55 showed a nearly fivefold increase in the risk of dementia. The association weakens progressively with older age at onset of multimorbidity. For example, that risk was only 1.7 times higher if multimorbidity onset was diagnosed at age 70.
While the study had its admitted limitations — including record keeping (electronic health record data), employment status and health versus the general population, severity of the chronic conditions, and disease-modifying drug use — the general trend convinced peer reviewers that the data was sound enough for publication.
What Does This Mean for People Living With a Chronic Illness?
The study showed the importance for those diagnosed with a chronic illness — particularly those diagnosed early in their lives — to manage their health to the best of their ability to avoid developing additional chronic conditions. There is a growing body of data suggesting that having one such condition may create susceptibility to a second or more.
In the study, no one illness or combination of illnesses was observed as a specific driver of dementia. In addition, although multiple sclerosis (MS) is considered a chronic illness, its influence on dementia risk was not assessed individually in the study.
Many of us living with multiple sclerosis know the difficulties and diffidence that can be caused by the MS-related cognitive impairment that we know as cog fog. The idea that our condition, if coupled with another, could bring on more and more severe versions of the same is harrowing.
What Behaviors Contribute to Preventable Chronic Conditions?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 6 in 10 adults in the United States live with a chronic disease, and 4 out of 10 have two or more. The CDC also sites a short list of behaviors that can contribute to many other chronic conditions.
Tobacco and exposure to secondhand smoke, poor nutrition (including diets low in fruits and vegetables or high in sodium and saturated fats), lack of physical activity, and excessive alcohol consumption are all connected as causes of several preventable chronic conditions.
Owing to the evidence put forth in this study, having one, unpreventable, chronic illness might lead us all to consider redoubling our efforts to live our healthiest life possible and cut out the high-risk behaviors listed above.
Wishing you and your family the best of health.