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Describing chronic disease

A disease is defined as a physical or mental disturbance involving symptoms (such as pain or feeling unwell), dysfunction or tissue damage that may lead to ill health. Diseases can be acute (coming on sharply, often brief, intense and/or severe) or chronic (long-lasting with persistent effects ranging from mild to severe) or in some cases both. Common features of chronic diseases include:

  • complex causality, with multiple factors leading to their onset
  • a long development period, for which there may be no symptoms
  • a prolonged course of illness, perhaps leading to other health complications
  • associated functional impairment or disability [1].

Chronic diseases can range from mild to more significant conditions and include:

Impact of chronic disease

Changes to our lifestyle in the last hundred years have meant that chronic diseases are increasingly common and now cause most of the burden of ill health. They greatly impact quality of life and have social and economic effects.

  • Chronic diseases take up a considerable amount of health professionals' time. In 2012–13, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, arthritis and lipid disorders were the most common chronic conditions managed in GP consultations; in total they accounted for nearly a quarter (24%) of all visits [2].
  • In 2012–13, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic kidney disease were associated with around 1.8 million hospitalisations, which is 20% of all hospitalisations in Australia [3].
  • Chronic diseases use up a large proportion of the health budget. In 2008–09, cardiovascular diseases, oral health issues, mental disorders and musculoskeletal conditions accounted for over a third (36%) of health expenditure at $27 billion [2].
  • In 2011, 9 in 10 deaths had chronic disease as an underlying cause [2].

For these reasons, a key focus of the Australian health system is the prevention and better management of chronic disease to improve health outcomes.

See Australia's health 2014 for further information on chronic diseases and their prevention.

Risk factors for chronic disease

Many factors influence how healthy we are and these are known collectively as determinants of health. Determinants affecting health in a negative way are referred to as risk factors. Risk factors that can affect the onset, maintenance and prognosis of a variety of chronic diseases include:


  1. AIHW 2012. Risk factors contributing to chronic disease. Cat. no. PHE 157. Canberra: AIHW.
  2. AIHW 2014. Australia's health 2014. Cat. no. AUS 178. Canberra: AIHW.
  3. AIHW 2014. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic kidney disease—Australian facts: mortality. Cat. no. CDK 1. Canberra: AIHW.