This study, based on a selection of community dwelling Albertans, describes the epidemiology of multimorbidity. The overall prevalence of multimorbidity in the study population was 19% in the general adult population. Age, household income and family structure were the most important measured predictors of the multimorbidity status. Multimorbidity tended to be more common in females than in males, an observation made in previous studies [23
Our estimates of the overall prevalence of multimorbidity is comparable to studies in Quebec, Canada [26
] and Australia [12
], and lower than reports from hospital-based practice [12
]. Patients consulting at a hospital for a chronic condition are more likely to have another chronic condition. In the Canadian study, Fortin and colleagues [26
] compared the prevalence of multimorbidity in practice-based and general population samples in Quebec. They observed that the overall prevalence was significantly higher for the primary care sample (32.3%) than in the general population (11.6%), highlighting the importance of the study population characteristics in the interpretation of findings on the prevalence of multimorbidity. Their study, however, defined multimorbidity based on 7 chronic conditions in adults aged 25 years and over. The lower prevalence of multimorbidity for the general population observed in their study compared to the present study may be due to the limited number of chronic conditions included [26
Studies examining the prevalence of multimorbidity have largely been limited to the elderly [13
], indicating that multimorbidity is a condition of old age. We observed, however, that 70% of persons with multimorbidity were less than 65 years of age, consistent with previous observations that multimorbidity affects not just older people [11
]. Mercer and colleagues [15
] argued that future studies "must begin to investigate multimorbidity across a life-course". Our findings provide further evidence on the importance of multimorbidity in young adults.
There have recently been calls for a more holistic definition of the term, with the inclusion of not just chronic disease "labels" [15
], but also morbidities suggesting emotional and psychological distress. The present study included anxiety and depression as a morbidity. The inclusion of another important chronic condition, obesity, remains controversial and has been considered elsewhere as a risk factor of multimorbidity, rather than a disease on its own right [11
]. Nagel and colleagues [31
] in a prospective study noted that obesity rates increase with the number of chronic conditions. While the direction of the relationship between obesity and multimorbidity is yet to be ascertained, there is need for public health policy to emphasize the importance of a healthy weight in reducing the burden of multimorbidity.
Age, household income and family structure (Not living with children) were independently association with multimorbidity. Although there is ample evidence for the inverse association between increasing age and decreasing income with multimorbidity [11
], the importance of family structure has received little attention in the past. Taylor and colleagues [11
] showed that independent of age, multimorbidity was more common among adults living alone or with partner, compared to those living with children. The reasons underlying these findings are not clearly understood. There is evidence that family support, also known as family-centered care [32
], may be vital in the management and control of chronic diseases [33
]. The importance of family support, through chronic disease management, may be an important component in reducing the likelihood of developing other chronic conditions. However, this hypothesis remains to be tested.
A major strength of this study is the population representativeness of the study sample, that allows for generalization of the findings. Thus, findings represent prevalence estimates in the general adult population. Population-based prevalence estimates of multimorbidity are important for reporting about the health status of the population. Our study entails a modest number of chronic conditions, including the core chronic conditions recommended for inclusion in measures of multimorbidity [35
]. Also, important chronic conditions such as obesity, anxiety and depression were included in this study.
Our study also has some limitations. The cross-sectional nature of the data prevents the examination of the temporality of the associations between socio-demographic factors and multimorbidity. The study included a limited number of morbidities, which are based on self-reports. Self-reported chronic disease status is subject to self-declaration bias due to under-reporting of diagnosis or forgetfulness [36
]. Surveyed patients with only one or none of the listed morbidities, who were counted as having no multimorbidity in this study, may have other unlisted chronic conditions. In the interpretation of these findings, it is therefore important to note that the reported prevalence of multimorbidity is only based on the set of chronic conditions in the HQCA survey. Moreover, some individuals who report having multimorbidity may essentially be reporting a single chronic condition and its symptom, e.g. arthritis and chronic pain. This, potentially, may lead to over-estimation of the true prevalence of multimorbidity. It is also possible that some important groups, such as immigrants (e.g. due to language barriers), were under-sampled. A further limitation of this study is the absence of an indicator of disease severity, as provided in the Kaplan Index, the Index of Coexisting Diseases, Charlson Index or the Cumulative Illness Rating Scale [38
]. Some studies have characterized conditions such as hypertension, high cholesterol and obesity as risk factors, rather than as chronic conditions [11
]. A further step may be to incorporate such differences in the analysis, while weighting conditions by severity.