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Definition, Types, Risk Factors, Treatment and More

You may come across the word “comorbidity” when searching the internet for information about a medical condition or when talking with your doctor.

Like many medical terms, the word “comorbidity” can be simplified. It means a coexisting health condition. For example, if you have diabetes and high blood pressure, these two conditions are comorbidities for each other.

Understanding if you have any comorbidities helps doctors develop the best treatment plan for your condition.

In this article, we break down what you need to know about this common medical term.

A comorbidity is any coexisting health condition. The prefix “co” means together and the word “morbidity” is the medical term for a health condition. It can also be described as concurrent or coexisting conditions.

Comorbidities sometimes interact with each other, but they can also exist completely separately. Some conditions may increase your risk of developing others, or may occur frequently together. For example, a heart attack often occurs with a stroke or vascular disease. Chronic kidney disease can occur with hypertension and anemia.

Comorbidities are often chronic conditions and can include physical or mental health.

It is possible to have several comorbidities at the same time. For example, a person may suffer from depression, arthritis, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Sometimes the term “multimorbidity” is used interchangeably with “comorbidity” if more than two conditions are present. But the term “comorbidity” is usually used when a particular condition is in focus.

Comorbidities are coexisting conditions that develop independently of each other. They may share the same risk factors, but they do not influence each other directly. For example, obesity can increase your risk of developing the comorbidities arthritis and diabetes.

A complication is a medical condition that develops from another health condition or from the treatment of another condition. For example, HIV retinopathy is a complication of untreated HIV.

Some comorbidities occur together randomly, but others are linked by shared genetic, behavioral, or environmental factors.

Comorbidities can be linked by:

  • fortuitous occurrence between two conditions
  • overlapping risk factors
  • one condition results from the complications of the other
  • a third condition causes both conditions

Comorbidities are often long-term conditions. Some of these conditions are very common. For example, approximately 22.7 percent of adults in the United States suffer from arthritis.

Many adults have at least one chronic disease. The World Health Organization estimates that 87 percent of deaths in high-income countries are due to chronic diseases.

Common comorbidities include:

Anyone can develop a comorbidity, but certain groups of people may be at higher risk for health problems than others.

Comorbidities become more common with age because older adults are more likely to have health problems than younger adults. The increase in age is the main risk factor in high-income countries.

People with less access to health care are also at risk. A study 2017 found that the presence of comorbidities is higher in lower socioeconomic groups.

Other at-risk groups include pregnant women and people with congenital or early onset diseases.

Certain lifestyle habits can also increase your risk of developing certain conditions. For example, smoking is linked to a number of health problems, including:

Having comorbidities can complicate the treatment of a health problem. For example, people with substance use disorders and mental health comorbidity are at higher risk of treatment dropout than people without mental illness.

In the UK, 1 in 3 adults admitted to hospital have five or more comorbidities.

Having two or more comorbidities is associated with:

  • reduced quality of life
  • impaired function
  • poorer physical and mental health
  • increased mortality

Treatment of comorbid conditions usually involves contacting separate specialists to develop a treatment plan for each condition. Current healthcare models focus on a single disease and often cause problems for people with multiple chronic conditions.

Different conditions may require separate medications, which can cause additional problems. Some medications may not be safe to take together, or one may reduce the effectiveness of another. A 2021 research review in England found that taking five or more drugs was associated with a 21 percent increase in the rate of falls in the elderly over a 2-year period.

The presence of certain morbidities can also complicate surgery. In one study 2018the researchers found that the comorbidities associated with the highest deaths during surgery were liver disease, electrolyte disturbances, and coagulopathy, impaired blood clotting.

Comorbidities are coexisting health conditions that are often chronic. They can be related to each other or occur independently.

Living with many chronic conditions can be difficult, but you can work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that meets all of your health needs.

Your doctor may refer you to several specialists to treat each condition. It is important to communicate with each specialist about any other conditions that may affect your treatment. Your GP can help you coordinate your treatment plan.