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More than three in four Canadian seniors described their health as "excellent," "very good" or "good."

It's not age alone that drives use of Canada's health care system by seniors, but the number and type of the chronic conditions they suffer, a new report suggests.   

Nearly three-quarters of this age group has at least one chronic medical condition, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information report, "Seniors and the Health Care System: What Is the Impact of Multiple Chronic Conditions?" released Thursday.

The authors focused on people aged 65 and older who were not living in institutions.

More than three in four seniors (77 per cent) in Canada described their health status as "excellent," "very good" or "good," compared with 51 per cent of seniors with three or more chronic conditions.

These seniors accounted for 40 per cent of health care use among those in this age group, even though they comprised only 24 per cent of the population studied. 

While the risk of developing chronic conditions increases with age, good primary care like having a family physician plays a strong role in managing them and perhaps delaying or preventing their onset, said Jeremy Veillard, the institute's vice president of research and analysis.

The 11 common chronic conditions included in the study were:

  • Arthritis.
  • Asthma.
  • Cancer.
  • Chronic pain.
  • Depression.
  • Diabetes.
  • Emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • Heart disease.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Mood disorders other than depression.
  • Stroke.

Seniors taking a high number of prescription medications were at a greater risk of experiencing side-effects requiring medical attention, the researchers found.

But fewer than half, 48 per cent, who reported a chronic condition said they'd had their medications reviewed by a doctor.

Seniors with chronic conditions regularly taking at least five prescription medications were more than twice as likely to experience a side-effect needing medical attention (13 per cent) as those taking only one or two prescription medications (six per cent).

By trying to better understand the relationship between how chronic conditions are managed, Greg Webster, the institute's director of primary health care, said they hope to improve preventative care and reduce health care costs.

The findings were based on a 2008 survey by Statistics Canada.