Information and statistics about invisible illnesses and visible diseases

Despite the fact that the majority of the US population looks rather healthy, statistics show a different story. Nearly 1 in 2 people have a chronic condition. This could be an illness like cancer or rheumatoid arthritis, or a condition such as arthritis, migraines or back pain from a car accident.

When studies are done about people with illnesses and disabilities, those who deal with chronic pain on a regular basis, but have not yet been diagnosed are often overlooked. We hope these chronic illness and invisible illness facts will shed some light on why we feel this week is valuable and worthy to inform others about.


  • Nearly 1 in 2 Americans (133 million) has a chronic condition. (a)
  • By 2020, about 157 million Americans will be afflicted by chronic illnesses, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • That number is projected to increase by more than one percent per year by 2030, resulting in an estimated chronically ill population of 171 million. (b)
  • Sixty percent are between the ages of 18 and 64 (c)
  • 90% of seniors have at least one chronic disease and 77% have two or more chronic diseases (d)
  • In the United States 4 in 5 health care dollars (78%) are spent on behalf of people with chronic conditions. The Growing Burden of Chronic Disease in American, Public Health Reports, May June 2004 Volume 119 Gerard Anderson, PhD


Approximately 96% of people who live with an illness have an illness that is invisible. These people do no use a cane or any assistive device and may look perfectly healthy. (2002 US Census Bureau)


We did our best to take the statistics that are available by the U.S. Department of Commerce, 1997, p. 1

  • Over 100 million people in the U.S. have a chronic illness;
  • 20.6 percent of the population, about 54 million people, have some level of disability;
  • 9.9 percent or 26 million people had a severe disability
  • 1.8 million used a wheelchair
  • 5.2 million used a cane, crutches, or a walker
  • So that is less than 6% who have a visible illness.
  • There are many illnesses that start out being invisible and as the disease progresses it becomes more visible.

Also note that:

  • 26 million persons were considered to have a severe disability;
  • yet, only 7 million persons used a visible device for mobility.
  • Thus, 19 million of the people who were defined as severely disabled, did not use a wheelchair, cane, crutches or walkers.
  • In other words, 73% of Americans with severe disabilities do not use such devices.
  • Therefore, a disability cannot be determined solely on whether or not a person uses visible assistive equipment.

U.S. Department of Commerce (1994). Bureau of the Census, Statistical Brief: Americans With Disabilities. (Publication SB/94-1).U.S. Department of Commerce (1997). Bureau of the Census, Census Brief: Disabilities Affect One-Fifth of All Americans. (Publication CENBR/97-5).


Though statistics do not include many categories of illness, mental illness, or conditions, we welcome anyone who may benefit from encouragement from others who have illnesses.

  • For example, 9 million people are cancer survivors with various side effects from treatment who may feel as though they have a chronic condition. (American Cancer Society)
  • Current statistics on autism indicate that more children will be diagnosed with autism this year than cancer, diabetes, Downs Syndrome and AIDS combined, approximately 1 in 150 children (\


    • Yes! About one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Walters EE. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry, 2005 Jun;62(6):617-27. and more than 90 percent of people who kill themselves have a diagnosable mental disorder

Conwell Y, Brent D. Suicide and aging I: patterns of psychiatric diagnosis. International Psychogeriatrics, 1995; 7(2): 149-64.

  • Two million Americans live with schizophrenia—twice the number of those with HIV/AIDS.  Almost 50% believe that doctors take their medical problems less seriously than those of people with other illnesses. (National Alliance on Mental Health)
  • Meanwhile, the death rate from causes such as heart disease and diabetes is two to three times greater for people living with serious mental illnesses than that of the general population. (National Alliance on Mental Health)
  • Unfortunately, two-thirds of people living with serious mental illnesses do not receive treatment. (National Alliance on Mental Health)


  • The divorce rate among the chronically ill is over 75 percent. National Health Interview Survey
  • Depression is 15-20% higher for the chronically ill than for the average person – Rifkin, A. “Depression in Physically Ill Patients,” Postgraduate Medicine (9-92) 147-154.
  • Various studies have reported that physical illness or uncontrollable physical pain are major factors in up to 70% of suicides; Mackenzie TB, Popkin MK: “Suicide in the medical patient.”. Intl J Psych in Med 17:3-22, 1987
  • and more than 50% of these suicidal patients were under 35 years of age. Michalon M: La psychiatrie de consultation-liaison: une etude prospective en milieu hospitalier general. Can J Psychiatry (In French) 38:168-174,1993
  • Chronic diseases—heart disease, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and stroke—are the leading causes of death in the United States. CDC, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2010)
  • Seven of every 10 deaths in the U.S. are caused by chronic conditions; heart disease is the leading cause of death among both men and women, followed by cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases—diabetes is seventh. CDC, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2010)
  • Chronic, disabling conditions cause major limitations in activity for more than one of every 10 Americans, or 25 million people. CDC, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2010)


Many studies have proven yes! A few are…

  • The significance of one’s faith has shown to lower one’s risk of depressive symptoms and aid one in better handling a stressful medical event. Pressman P., Lyons J.S., Larson D.B., Strain, J.J. “Religious belief, depression, and ambulation status in elderly women with broken hips.” American Journal of Psychiatry 1990; 147(6): 758-760.
  • Those who use their religious faith to cope are significantly less depressed, even when taking into account the severity of their physical illness. In fact, the clinical effects of religious coping showed the strongest benefit among those with severe physical disability. Some 87 patients hospitalized with serious illness who also then suffered depression were followed over time in another study. The patients with a deep, internalized faith recovered faster from the depression, even when their physical condition wasn’t improving.
    Kendler, K.S., Gardner, C. O., and Prescott, C.A. “Religion, Psychopathology, and Substance Use and Abuse: A Multimeasure, Genetic-Epidemiologic Study,” American Journal of Psychiatry 1997; 154: 322-329. Koenig, Harold G., Larson, David B., and Weaver, Andrew J. “Research on Religion and Serious Mental Illness,” in Spirituality and Religion in Recovery from Mental Illness, ed., Roger Fallott. New Directions for Mental Health Services 1998; (80).


Other invisible illness resources of interest:

a-Chronic Care in America: A 21st Century Challenge, a study of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation & Partnership for Solutions: Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (September 2004 Update). “Chronic Conditions: Making the Case for Ongoing Care”.

b-Chronic Care in America: A 21st Century Challenge, a study of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation & Partnership for Solutions: Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (September 2004 Update). “Chronic Conditions: Making the Case for Ongoing Care”.

c-Chronic Care in America: A 21st Century Challenge, a study of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

d-The Growing Burden of Chronic Disease in American, Public Heal Reports / May–June 2004 / Volume 119, Gerard Anderson, PhD

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