What is Morbidity and What Does it Mean for Your Lifespan?

What role disease and illness plays in determining how long you will live

Heart disease is the leading cause of morbidity.
Heart disease is the leading cause of morbidity. Colin Hawkins/Getty Images

Morbidity is any physical or psychological state considered to be outside the realm of normal well-being. The term morbidity is often used to describe illness, impairment, or degradation of health, especially when discussing chronic and age-related diseases which can worsen over time. The higher your morbidity, the shorter your lifespan may be than if you were healthy.

Morbidity vs. Mortality

While morbidity refers to your level of health and well-being, mortality is related to your risk of death.

They are not the same thing as morbidity doesn't necessarily mean that your ill-health is immediately life-threatening, however over time if an illness continues long-term it may increase your risk of mortality or death. Current research shows people are now living longer with diseases than they once were.

Compression of Morbidity Efforts

James Fries, Ph.D, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, introduced the "compression of morbidity" theory, which focuses on preventing the onset of chronic illness later in life to increase life expectancy. The goal is to have shorter illnesses, later in life. Preventive measures like regular well check-ups, adequate exercise, healthy diet and the like are all measures meant to create compression of morbidity. The goal of medical and lifestyle interventions is aimed at preserving health and wellness for as long as possible, before mortality (death) occurs.

Leading Causes of Morbidity

Heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes mellitus, pneumonia and influenza, kidney disease and suicide accounted for almost 75% of deaths in the U.S. in 2013. Seven of the 10 leading causes of death are chronic diseases, two, heart disease and cancer account for nearly half of US deaths each year.

The prevalence of chronic disease remains steady but infectious disease has had an uptick in recent years thereby increasing morbidity. In addition to infectious diseases, foodborne illness, associated infections and sexually transmitted diseases also contribute to higher morbidity among Americans.

Safety and Preventive Measures to Lower Morbidity

Ways to lower morbidity rates include increasing screenings and early diagnosis which would lessen the length and impact of the disease on a person's quality of life. This would also lower complications for certain diseases and lower the mortality rates of certain diseases because diseases and illness were caught early. Other ways to compress morbidity is through education and access to preventive healthcare. For example, a model to lower morbidity for pregnant women involves access to safe abortions, prenatal care throughout pregnancy and postpartum care along with family planning education throughout.

The Future

As people live longer, and diseases linger, the focus on lowering morbidity is education throughout life to create healthy habits, monitor health outcomes, and receiving regular check-ups to promote lifelong health before any signs of disease occur.


Morbidity. International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) Glossary of Terms used in Toxicology. US Department of Health and Human Services Public Information Sheet.

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