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Health Articles

Manage Your Multiple
Chronic Conditions

Photo of mature womanDealing with one chronic condition can be challenging. but if you are like millions of other americans who have more than one complex illness, playing an active role in managing your multiple chronic conditions is critical.

Good news: americans are living longer lives. However, this does not come without its own set of complications. As we age, we are more likely to develop long-lasting chronic conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, and obesity, among many others.

A chronic condition is one that lasts a year or more and requires regular medical care and/or compromises your normal daily activities. Chronic conditions can range from physical illnesses, such as arthritis, asthma and other lung problems, diabetes, heart disease, and HIV, to such behavioral conditions as substance abuse disorders, mental illness, and cognitive impairments.

Not surprisingly, as a person’s number of chronic conditions increases, so do the health risks (including the risks of dying), the impacts on quality of life, and the financial burden. Those who have multiple chronic conditions often have significant out-of-pocket costs, including higher prescription drug bills.

Part of the problem is that too often patients’ conditions are treated separately by multiple health care providers—an outdated silo approach that increases the chances of receiving contradicting advice from doctors and conflicting prescriptions that can result in adverse drug effects. The risks for unnecessary hospitalizations and duplicate diagnostic tests also increase.

Take Control of Your Conditions

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, getting disease-specific information from your doctors may be less important than mastering the day-to-day problem-solving skills that are relevant to living with one or more chronic conditions. The following tips may help you manage your conditions:

  • Know the potential side effects and interactions of any drugs you are taking. Your pharmacist is a good person to speak with about this.
  • Maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly.
  • Communicate regularly with your health care providers.
  • Manage your emotions. Consider joining a support group in your area for people with your condition.

Taking an active role in managing your chronic conditions can pay off. Participants in Stanford University’s Chronic Disease Self-Management Program (CDSMP)—which helps people learn coping skills to better manage their symptoms—lowered their health care costs and improved their overall health.

They saved money by reducing both their hospitalizations and their emergency room and outpatient visits. Health benefits included exercising more and playing a more active role in their own care. They also were less tired, short of breath, depressed, and better able to engage in social activities, according to the National Council on Aging, which supports CDSMP along with several other federal health agencies.

You can adopt some of the principles of CDSMP in order to self-manage your chronic conditions and better coordinate your care.

Manage Your Medications

The more medications you have, the more problematic it may be to keep them straight. Here are a few tips to help you better manage them:

  • Make a list of what medications you take and what they treat, then check off which ones you’ve taken throughout the day so that you don’t risk having too much of one drug.
  • Review your medicine with all of your doctors. Bring a list of all the medications you take, including over-the-counter medicine, vitamins, and supplements, to every doctor’s visit.
  • Don’t stop taking your medication, even if you start feeling better, unless you have your doctor’s OK.
  • Refill your prescriptions early. As your prescription gets low, call your pharmacist to refill it so that you don’t run out.

Tell your doctor immediately about any side effects or problems the medication may be causing.

Eat Healthily

If you eat healthier, you’ll have more energy and lessen the chances of further health difficulties from such conditions as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. You should watch your portion sizes and adopt the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommendation of dividing your plate into half fruits and vegetables, a quarter of grains, a quarter of protein, and, in addition, some calcium-rich foods, such as milk or other dairy products.

Depending on your diseases, you might need to customize that formula. If you have diabetes, for example, half of your plate should be non-starchy vegetables. Heart disease and stroke patients need to be careful about the amount and types of fat they eat. And lung patients might need to increase their protein intake.

Time to Get Active

Regular exercise can also help you manage your chronic conditions. The benefits exercise provides include:

  • Reducing your risk for other conditions you may not have, such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes
  • Improving blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood lipid levels
  • Helping maintain a good weight
  • Strengthening your bones and joints and reducing your risk for osteoporosis and arthritis

If you have your chronic conditions under control, moderate exercise is most likely safe to do. However, you should speak with your doctor before starting an exercise routine.

Communicate for Coordinated Care

Talking effectively with your doctors is crucial. The Stanford CDSMP recommends that you take PART before visiting your doctors. This means you should:

  • Prepare a list of your concerns.
  • Ask questions about your diagnoses, tests, treatments, and follow-up.
  • Repeat the gist of what you’re told to make sure you understand.
  • Take action by making sure you know what you should do next.

By Bruce E. Beans, a feature writer for Vitality. For more information on workshops to manage chronic conditions, visit the National Council on Aging at www.restartliving.org.

COPING WITH THE EMOTIONAL STRESS OF MULTIPLE CHRONIC CONDITIONS

Battling one or more chronic diseases can take an emotional as well as a physical toll. Anxiety and sadness about your condition or conditions and the impact they are having on your life often lead to depression.

Depression, according to the American Psychological Association, often leads to poor eating, exercise, and hygiene habits—all of which can make your physical condition even worse. Depression is also a known factor in causing heart attacks and strokes.

Because you are at the greatest risk for depression during the first two years of being diagnosed with a chronic illness, you should act quickly to tackle any signs of depression. Talk with your doctor about referring you to a psychologist who can help you cope with your condition, follow your treatment plan, and develop a more positive attitude.

Some additional suggestions on how to maintain a positive attitude include:

  • Stay connected. Continue to maintain good relationships with your family and friends. And consider joining a support group. Not only could it help you feel better, but you might enjoy helping others feel better, too. You could even make new friends who relate to what you’re going through.
  • Take care of yourself. Despite your illness, make sure you eat well, get plenty of exercise and rest, and participate in activities that you enjoy.
  • Maintain your daily routine. If possible, keep working, do your household chores, and engage in your hobbies.

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