Research suggests new model of chronic disease

Genes play a key role in determining whether someone experiences multiple chronic diseases, according to new research led by the University of Dundee.

Chronic pain, depression and heart disease are three of the commonest causes of disability, and are becoming more prevalent. People are also increasingly likely to suffer from more than one chronic disease, resulting in greater disability. 

While age, gender, social circumstances and lifestyle are known to increase susceptibility to multiple causes of disability the exact reason why some people suffer from several chronic diseases and others don’t is unknown. A new study by Dundee researchers and colleagues at the University of Oxford and King’s College London, however, has found that genetics are also a key determinant.

They examined two major existing population cohorts (Generation Scotland and TwinsUK), for the co-occurrence of chronic pain, depression and heart disease both in individuals and in their siblings.  They found that people who had one of these illnesses were much more likely to have one or both of the others. Additionally, the brothers or sisters of people with one of these illnesses were much more likely to have one of the others, even after allowing for known social and demographic factors. 

“These results have the potential to lead to a new model of chronic disease,” said Blair Smith, Professor of Population Science at Dundee’s School of Medicine. “They demonstrate, for the first time, that genes are important in determining the risk both of chronic disease itself, and of co-occurrence of disabilities. 

“Our results strongly suggest that these chronic diseases, and potentially others, have shared common biological causes, in addition to known social and demographic factors. Further research is required to identify these causes, including the genes involved, in order that we can cut them off at an early stage.”

The researchers found that people with depression were two and half times more likely to experience chronic pain, while people with both depression and heart disease were nine times more likely to do so. Siblings of people with heart disease were twice as likely to have chronic pain, while siblings of those with depression were twice as likely to suffer from heart disease.

Detailed modelling of data confirmed a genetic contribution to the co-occurrence of chronic widespread pain and heart disease in twins, in addition to important environmental contributions.

The results of the study are published today in the journal PLOS ONE and can be found at

For media enquiries contact:
Grant Hill
Press Officer
University of Dundee
Nethergate, Dundee, DD1 4HN
Tel: +44 (0)1382 384768
Mobile: 07854 953277