Patients with one disease are more likely to develop another, study finds

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In a study published in the journal PNAS Nexus, researcher Anthony Webster explores the phenomenon of multimorbidity—the presence of multiple diseases in a single individual.

Webster’s study delves into whether having one disease makes a patient more susceptible to acquiring another, regardless of other risk factors such as age, smoking status, or body mass index (BMI).

Webster employed a Poisson-Binomial distribution coupled with a Weibull model to predict the incidence of 222 common diseases among approximately 500,000 individuals from the UK Biobank cohort.

The study accounted for age and other established risk factors but intentionally disregarded the history of previous diseases or pre-existing conditions.

The study found that the actual number of diagnoses was about 50% higher than the expected number based on risk factors and age alone.

This trend was observed across a wide variety of diseases and was consistent for both men and women. However, variations were noted for specific groups, like smokers and individuals with high BMI.

In men with high BMI who also smoke, the actual rate of new diseases was nearly double that expected based solely on age and risk factors.

Certain categories of diseases, including diseases of the digestive system and musculoskeletal diseases, exhibited rates approximately twice what was expected based on age and other risk factors alone.

Although the exact mechanisms by which having one disease affects the risk of acquiring another remain unclear, the study’s findings could have significant implications for risk assessment and healthcare planning.

Webster suggests that risk models might need to be adapted to take into account the elevated risk of developing new diseases due to existing ones, apart from common risk factors.

The study opens up new avenues for research to understand the underlying mechanisms that increase the likelihood of multimorbidity.

Such understanding can significantly impact how medical professionals approach patient care and disease prevention, particularly in populations already burdened by one or more diseases.


The study provides critical insights into the state of multimorbidity, suggesting that the presence of one disease can increase the risk of acquiring another, independent of broad risk factors.

It calls for a re-evaluation of current risk models and highlights the need for further research to unpack the complexities of disease interactions.

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The research findings can be found in PNAS Nexus.

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