The daily burden of managing multiple diseases such as diabetes, arthritis and COPD can take a heavy toll on older men and women – increasing the risk of suicide and speeding cognitive decline, according to University of Michigan studies.

Melissa Y. Wei, M.D., told McKnight’s that those caring for older adults with more than one chronic disease should look beyond physical disability for signs of diminished cognitive health and mental distress.

“The coexistence of both physical and cognitive impairments is common among adults with multimorbidity,” said Wei, who led the research. “While it is often easier to assess for physical impairments, clinicians should also screen for and address signs of cognitive decline in people with multiple chronic conditions.”

Wei and her team used a multimorbidity scoring index to measure the total impact of unique health conditions on individual study participants. In one study, those with higher scores were shown to have an “accelerated and persistent” decline in their ability to recall words and do simple math over a 14 year period. In another, those with higher index scores were more than twice as likely to die from suicide than those with lower scores.

The scoring system, developed by Wei, has since been made into a free tool that care providers can find at the website ePrognosis, run by the University of California, San Francisco.

Three in four Americans aged 65 and older now live with multiple chronic conditions and that number is increasing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those with more than one chronic condition account for about 71% of the total health care spending in the United States.

Read the study