Nearly one-third of Welsh adults struggling to live with everyday burdens of chronic illnesses



24 February 2015 

Nearly one-third of Welsh adults struggling to live with everyday burdens of chronic illnesses

Thousands of Welsh adults have not learnt to live with the symptoms of persistent health conditions, with sufferers of mental or neurological disorders the most affected, according to a new study just published.

The study, published in the International Journal of Cardiology, analysed data from a recent Welsh national health survey covering 15,687 adults to assess how many were either receiving treatment for or learning to live with common symptoms. The research was carried out by Dr. Ivy Shiue, assistant professor of environmental health at Heriot-Watt University.

Nearly 30% reported that they struggled to cope with the mental or physical pains associated with their illness, which can range from shortness of breath for people suffering asthma to feelings of anxiety for those with mental health conditions. Around 20% said they had learnt to live with their chronic conditions, while the remainder of the respondents reported that they had either seen a doctor within the previous year or did not have a long-term illness.

The study revealed that those with mental health problems were the least likely to be able to live with their symptoms, with up to 10% of Welsh adults reportedly suffering from untreated depressive or anxious symptoms. This is because adults with these conditions are more likely to experience pain or discomfort on a regular basis, unlike the intermittent or one-time pain associated with physical illnesses such as angina or heart attack.

Dr Shiue said the consequences for those who cannot learn to live with their conditions can be severe.
“Evidence shows that people who have not learnt to live with symptoms related to their illness experience noticeably worse quality of life, and the burden is especially high for those with mental health conditions.

“These patients may start to lose hope and their sense of identity, ultimately leading to a feeling of fear, meaninglessness and despair at their condition. In the worst case scenario, they could exacerbate their health problems and even take their own life.”

Earlier this month, Welsh Health Minister Mark Drakeford launched a report and action plan, Talk to Me 2, which aims to reduce the suicide and self-harm rates across the country. According to the Minister, there are between 300 and 350 suicides each year in Wales, around three times the number killed in road accidents.

However, the study’s finding that one-fifth of Welsh adults have learnt to live with their illnesses may point a way forward. Dr. Shiue says that investment in, and improvement of, patient self care could help reduce the painful symptoms associated with historical health conditions.

“Self care programmes, like the existing Expert Patients Program, are a simple and cost-effective way of treating patients after they have been diagnosed with a long-term illness. Learning to live with one’s symptoms is an acquired skill and needs practice but it entails many straightforward techniques, from healthier dieting to regular exercise.

“While placing the emphasis on the patient to manage their condition, self care is most effective when provided in connection with wider health and social services and with support at the neighbourhood and community level. Raising awareness of these rehabilitation methods and building support networks for patients after diagnosis could significantly reduce the everyday mental and physical pains that hamper people’s lives.”