Most older Australians living with multiple chronic illnesses

Almost 80 per cent of Australians aged 85 and over are living with multiple chronic health conditions, according to the latest data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

Chronic health conditions can come in many forms and differing levels of severity. What isa common among all chronic conditions though is the long-lasting and persistent nature of symptoms.

Chronic conditions can include diseases like cancer, cardiovascular conditions, respiratory conditions such as asthma, mental health conditions, chronic kidney disease and even arthritis.

Suffering from a chronic condition becomes more frequent as you get older, and improvements in healthcare mean people are living longer. Combine those two facts and it’s easy to see how the number of those suffering from chronic conditions is steadily rising.

Multimorbidity makes it worse

With more people living longer – and those people becoming more likely to develop chronic health problems – its also logical that the number of older people living with multiple chronic conditions would also be growing, in a phenomenon known as ‘multimorbidity’.

People living with multiple chronic conditions often have complex health needs and report poorer overall quality of life than those without multimorbidity.

Across the total Australian population, the AIHW report estimated 49.9 per cent of people were living with at least one chronic condition, while 38 per cent were living with multimorbidity.

Break it down by age group and the picture becomes even more bleak. Just 11 per cent of Australians aged 0-14 were living with two or more chronic health conditions, but this number jumps to a whopping 79 per cent for people aged 85 and over.

The AIHW found multimorbidity was more common among women than men. An estimated 4.6 million males (37 per cent) and 5.0 million females (39 per cent) were living with multimorbidity.

Along with age, it’s probably no surprise that the likelihood of multimorbidity increases with socioeconomic disadvantage, with multimorbidity becoming more common the poorer someone is.

In the highest socioeconomic areas, multimorbidity rates sit at around 31 per cent, but in the poorest areas that figure jumps to 44 per cent.

When it comes to geographic areas, the data showed prevalence of multimorbidity was higher in both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ regional areas (46 and 45 per cent respectively) than in major cities (35 per cent).

Are there any patterns to multimorbidity?

Two chronic health conditions can occur together in a person either by chance because they’re common ailments, or because there is an underlying relationship between the two.

A good example, particularly when it comes to older people, is the role ‘back problems’ can play in multimorbidity – both in obvious and not-so-obvious ways.

The report found an estimated 2.1 million people (16 per cent) were living with back problems (including sciatica, disc disorders and curvature of the spine).

Back problems commonly occurred in conjunction with other conditions among people aged 45 and over. For example, 169,000 males aged 45-64 (5.6 per cent) and 289,000 males aged 65 and over (15 per cent) were living with back problems and deafness or hearing loss

Medically speaking there is no connection between back problems and deafness, and this association represents a chance grouping of the two, rather than a causal effect.

But the data also showed a link between back problems and osteoarthritis – two conditions that are causally linked by both being conditions of the musculoskeletal system.

The report revealed 173,000 women aged 45-64 (5.5 per cent) and 272,000 aged 65 and over (12 per cent) were living with both back problems and osteoarthritis.

What are the impacts of multimorbidity?

Compared with people of the same age who have no long-term health conditions, people experiencing multimorbidity reported higher levels of disability, restriction or limitation (41 per cent of people with multimorbidity experienced this versus 2 per cent of people without).

In the previous four weeks, 41 per cent of people with multimorbidity experienced ‘moderate to very severe bodily pain’ in the previous 4 weeks compared with just 8.2 per cent of those with no long-term conditions.

People with multimorbidity were also less likely to be in the labour force (either working or seeking work) than people with no chronic conditions.

People living with multimorbidity also have more frequent and longer medical appointments and more medications to manage. This can greatly increase the complexity of patient care.

Are you suffering from any chronic health conditions? Do you have more than one? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: Life expectancy drops for first time in 30 years, data reveals

Brad Lockyer
Brad Lockyer
Brad has deep knowledge of retirement income, including Age Pension and other government entitlements, as well as health, money and lifestyle issues facing older Australians. Keen interests in current affairs, politics, sport and entertainment. Digital media professional with more than 10 years experience in the industry.
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