Chronic Diseases

Chronic medical conditions — including cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and asthma — cause more than half of all deaths worldwide. Environmental, genetic, and lifestyle factors are linked to the development of many chronic diseases. Long-term diseases affect people of all ages, both rich and poor, in every racial/ethnic group. NIH’s long-term efforts to understand, treat, and prevent chronic diseases aim to reduce the global burden of these conditions.

Cardiovascular Disease

No Longer a Mystery Killer

Older couple power walking.Veer / Juice Images Photography

Only 6 decades ago, we didn’t know what caused cardiovascular disease, and many Americans died of heart attacks in their 50s or 60s. Starting with the Framingham Heart Study, NIH helped establish the concept of risk factors and heart disease prevention.

Dr. Caroline Fox

“To understand risk factors, we need to study large populations, and this is where the Framingham Heart Study is unique: With 3 generations of families participating, we have access to 60 years of longitudinal data that provide a gold mine of information.”

— Dr. Caroline Fox, NIH

Connecting Diet and Health

Blueberries arranged in the shape of a heart.Veer/mzoroyan

NIH research sheds light on how diet affects heart health.

Salt shaker spilled out onto a counter top.Veer/jirkaejc

NIH-funded research showed that reducing sodium intake not only prevents high blood pressure, but also prevents heart disease. In one study, men and women with pre-hypertension who reduced their sodium intake by 25% to 35% had a 25% lower risk of cardiovascular disease over the next 10 to 15 years.

Heart, Stroke Deaths Fall

Grandson riding on his grandfather's shoulders, with other family members running along side.

By how much have we reduced the death rate from heart disease?

NIH research has led to new ways to prevent heart attacks, lower cholesterol, and dissolve blood clots. As a result, the death rate for coronary disease is 60% lower than in the 1940s. Better treatment of acute conditions, better medications, and improved health behaviors — all made possible by NIH research — account for as much as two-thirds of this reduction.

Helping Us Be Heart-Healthy

Woman in a suit smiling.Veer/edbockstock

“I’ve got to keep my blood pressure normal and stay healthy for my own son."

NIH’s health education campaigns are helping Americans like Carol take care of their hearts.

Women dressed in red.

To make women more aware of the danger of heart disease, NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and partner organizations are sponsoring a national campaign called The Heart Truth®. The campaign's goal is to give women a personal and urgent wakeup call about their risk of heart disease. National Wear Red Day promotes the Red Dress symbol for heart health awareness and provides an opportunity for everyone — men and women alike — to unite in this lifesaving awareness-to-action movement by wearing anything and everything red!

Fighting Hypertension

Doctor checking blood pressure with sphygmomanometer gauge in focus.iStock / Michael Krinke

We have hypertension drugs thanks in part to NIH research.

Are lifestyle changes enough to combat high blood pressure? What will happen if high blood pressure is left untreated? Do both older and younger adults with hypertension need to take medication?

MedlinePlus is a free, online medical encyclopedia written for the public by NIH’s National Library of Medicine. Learn more about hypertension drugs at its Blood Pressure Medicines page.

What’s Your Heart Risk?

If you know your cholesterol and your blood pressure, you can calculate your risk of a heart attack, thanks to advances in understanding risk that came from NIH research.

Use this risk calculator to find out your 10-year risk for heart attack.


A Never-Ending Battle

Cancer cells.NCI

“I think cancer will always be with us. The goal is to prevent death from it…”

— Vincent DeVita, M.D., former director, National Cancer Institute

Doctor crouched beside a smiling child sitting in wheelchair.

U.S. cancer death rates are now falling about 1% every year, with each 1% decline saving our nation about $500 billion. There’s also been near-miraculous progress against childhood cancers, with the 5-year survival rate for the most common type, acute lymphocytic leukemia, now standing at 90%.

Revolution Through Research

Researcher preparing DNA in a lab for testing.

NIH-funded research has inspired a revolution in how we think about cancer.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two types of vaccines to prevent cancer: vaccines against the hepatitis B virus, which can cause liver cancer, and vaccines against human papillomavirus types 16 and 18, which are responsible for about 70% of cervical cancer cases.

A History of Advances

Black and white photo of scientists working in a lab.NCI

During the past 150 years, we have witnessed many remarkable advances against cancer.

Although we still have a long way to go to reduce the toll of cancer in the United States and worldwide, our research and public health efforts are beginning to pay dividends.

Since the early 1990s, we have witnessed a sustained decline in the rate of cancer deaths in the United States, thanks in part to NIH research.

We must now redouble our efforts to ensure continued progress and accelerate the pace of our advances.

1863: Rudolph Virchow identifies white blood cells (leukocytes) in cancerous tissue, making the first connection between inflammation and cancer.

1958: NIH researchers Emil Frei and James Holland and their colleagues pioneer the use of combination chemotherapy.

1980: NIH scientist Robert Gallo and his colleagues isolate the virus that causes adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma and several other diseases.

1996: The first sustained decline in cancer death rates in the United States since recordkeeping began in the 1930s is reported.

2003: Results from the NIH-sponsored Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial (PCPT) show that men taking the drug finasteride were 25% less likely to develop prostate cancer than men taking a placebo, demonstrating that prostate cancer can be prevented.

Read more highlights of the past 250 years of cancer research.

Explore a timeline showing advances in cancer treatments, aided by NIH research.

Decoding Cancer’s Signature

Female patient talking to a doctor.

Tools developed through the Human Genome Project, co-led by the NIH, are now informing breast cancer treatment decisions. Molecular testing of breast cancer cells makes it possible to see which genes are active in an individual tumor. That pattern enables doctors to predict the chance of cancer recurrence with a high degree of accuracy. This genetic test is now being used by approximately 50,000 women annually. A large fraction of these women will be found not to need chemotherapy, sparing them treatment side effects and saving our health care system $100 million.

3-dimensional illustration of cell DNA.

The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) is a landmark NIH research program that is identifying genomic changes in more than 20 different types of human cancer. By looking at many samples from many different patients, researchers can gain a better understanding of what makes one cancer different from another. This is important because even 2 patients with the same type of cancer may experience very different outcomes or respond very differently to treatments. By connecting specific genomic changes with specific outcomes, researchers will be able to develop more effective, individualized ways of helping each cancer patient.

Help Make Discoveries in a Clinical Trial

NIH cancer research depends on volunteers like Pamela. Pamela and many other people donate their time to NIH investigators looking for new drugs to fight cancer and other human diseases.

Clinical trials are a critical part of the research process. Clinical trials help to move basic scientific research from the laboratory into treatments for people. By evaluating the results of these trials, we can find better treatments and ways to prevent, detect, and treat cancer. But, very few adults with cancer—only 3%—participate in clinical trials. We need to test the best ideas in cancer prevention, detection, and treatment in the shortest time possible, and this can only happen if more people participate in clinical trials.

Learn more about what it means to participate as a clinical trial volunteer.

Cancer’s Nano Frontier

To target tumors, NIH’s Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer aims small.

Since 2004, NIH-funded Alliance researchers have focused on developing new nanomaterials for diagnosing and treating cancer. Alliance scientists are making promising advances in bringing nanotechnology-enabled treatments and diagnostics closer to the clinic.

Learn more about current NIH cancer clinical trials involving nanotechnology.


Protecting Those at Risk

Mother and daughter jogging together.Veer / Mike Watson

Type 2 diabetes, which is associated with obesity, can have serious health effects. A 10-year NIH study offered hope to people at risk for the disease: It found that diet and exercise can reduce significantly the incidence of type 2 diabetes among those at risk. In fact, research shows that even modest lifestyle changes can reduce risk by 58%.

About 1.9 million Americans adults were newly diagnosed with diabetes in 2010. In 2011, NIH launched a 10-year strategic plan to battle this serious disease whose reach is expected to grow. The plan supports research in a number of areas, including:

  • Understanding the connection between obesity and type 2 diabetes
  • Developing an artificial pancreas, the organ affected by diabetes
  • Reducing the impact of diabetes on high-risk groups, including older people and people of certain races and ethnicities

Several NIH Institutes explore issues related to diabetes. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) plays the lead role in this work. Read more about the NIDDK and about the diabetes strategic plan.

Preventing Complications

Needle dripping insulin onto the word diabetes.Veer/MARKBZ

Diabetes can cause serious health problems, including kidney, eye, and heart conditions. NIH researchers conducted a landmark study that proved that careful control of blood sugar reduces several complications of type 1 diabetes.

3-dimensional rendering of a heart in arrest.Veer / Alloy Photography

NIH-funded researchers from 77 medical centers in the United States and Canada studied more than 10,000 participants who had type 2 diabetes to assess ways to reduce the risk of diabetes-related heart disease.

Diabetes During Pregnancy

Pregnant woman lying on her side in bed.Veer / Monkey Business Images

NIH researchers are exploring the risks to a woman and her developing child from diabetes during pregnancy.

An NIH-supported study followed 25,000 pregnant women in 11 countries. It found that obese mothers with gestational diabetes had a significantly greater risk of certain health problems, including:

  • Developing high blood pressure
  • Needing a cesarean section
  • Delivering a baby with an unhealthy birth weight

This study and similar research is supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Promoting Health

NIH-funded programs help people prevent diabetes, lose weight, and stay healthy. In this video, one woman discusses her decision to take better care of herself. "It's not easy," she says, "but it's worth it."

Young woman weighing herself.Veer / Volt Collection

NIH helps provide resources for losing weight, getting active, coping with stress, and other health issues for people with diabetes and those at risk for the disease.

Searching for Answers

A young woman participates in an NIH-funded research study to learn more about her own risk for developing diabetes and to help others, including her twin sister.

Major advances in understanding, preventing, and treating diabetes are not possible without clinical trials. NIH appreciates people who give their time to participate in research. You can watch videos about the experience of people who volunteer for studies and learn more about volunteering for studies.

Diabetes Education

NIH helped create a national program to help people better understand and prevent diabetes. Over time, awareness of diabetes has increased from less than 10% to more than 80%.

NIH offers several resources to help people handle diabetes, including:


Action on Asthma

Woman using an inhaler.Veer/keeweeboy

About 18 million adults and 7 million children in the United States have asthma. A few decades ago, people with asthma couldn't engage in many activities. Today, thanks in part to NIH, asthma is quite controllable.

Young boy using an inhaler.Veer / Fancy Photography

NIH programs in communities nationwide are learning how comprehensive home asthma interventions can make a difference for kids.

Understanding Asthma

We understand asthma better thanks in part to NIH-funded research.

NIH provides a variety of materials to patients, health care providers, teachers, and others to help them understand asthma. You can find resources for online viewing, ordering, or printing at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s asthma information website or the asthma site of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Asthma Culprits

Dust mite.

NIH research shows that children in inner cities are exposed to more allergens, such as dust mites, that can trigger asthma. People with asthma and allergies may be able to alleviate symptoms by reducing allergens in their homes.

Family reading and doing homework around a dinner table.Veer / Ocean Photography

Scientists supported by NIH have found that home-based intervention programs — such as teaching families about air filters and pest control — can reduce environmental factors that make asthma worse. NIH has helped develop a program to promote such interventions in homes with children in low-income areas.

Asthma Research Innovation

Examples of indoor pollutants that can cause asthma: a dust mite and a hand holding a cigarette.Veer / Tomas Jasinskis

PIPER, or the Pre-toddler Inhalable Particulate Environmental Robotic sampler, is a robot developed by NIH grantees that mimics children’s floor activities while collecting better estimates of their exposure to indoor pollutants that can cause asthma.

Pregnant woman holding her belly.

It may be possible to prevent asthma even earlier in life. NIH scientists are exploring preventive methods that start in the womb, including an ongoing study examining whether vitamin D supplements given to pregnant women could prevent their children from developing asthma after they are born.

Finding What Works for YOU

NHLBI's Dr. Stewart Levine, technician Clara Jolly, and patient and fellow Jonathan Lam demonstrate the pulmonary function tests that trial participants will receive to monitor the progress of their asthma.

NIH-funded research identified which supplemental treatments for asthma worked best. Researchers also found ways to predict which of these therapies is more likely to be effective for each particular child with persistent asthma.

Illustration for asthma that depicts a figure using an inhaler, shows the lungs, prescriptions, and air pollution.Veer / ImageZoo Illustration

NIH scientists have developed tools like the Asthma Action Plan to help people with asthma control their symptoms, manage their medications, and stay healthy. Health tools and informational materials created through NIH support can be valuable in fighting chronic diseases such as asthma.

Research Collaboration to Improve Asthma Care

Three scientist/researchers from the NIH Clinical Center.
NIH contributed to a recent project that promotes standardization in asthma clinical studies. This will let scientists compare their results more efficiently and could improve the quality of asthma care.
3-dimensional DNA strands.

Collaborative science is paving the way in understanding the genetics of asthma. International collaborators are studying genetic risk factors and their interactions with environmental risk factors, in order to characterize how they may influence susceptibility to the disease.

This page last reviewed on October 8, 2015