This Many U.S. Adults Have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Derick Alison
Derick Alison
4 Min Read

During 2021-2022, 1.3% of adults had myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), new National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) data showed.

Women (1.7%) were more likely than men (0.9%) to have ME/CFS, according to Anjel Vahratian, PhD, MPH, of the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), and co-authors.

The percentage of people with ME/CFS rose with age through ages 60-69, then dropped in those 70 and older, the researchers reported in NCHS Data Brief. White adults were more likely than Hispanic or Asian adults to have ME/CFS. ME/CFS estimates decreased with higher family income and increased with rural residence.

ME/CFS is a chronic multisystem illness characterized by activity-limiting fatigue. Its cause is unknown, but many people develop ME/CFS after an acute infection and have symptoms that persist for 6 or more months. There is no diagnostic test or FDA-approved treatment for the condition.

Post-exertional malaise is a hallmark of the disease; small amounts of activity can result in a prolonged exacerbation of symptoms and a reduction in function. Other symptoms may include sleep impairment, cognitive problems, pain, orthostatic intolerance, flu-like symptoms, sensory intolerance, gastrointestinal problems, or genitourinary issues.

Some ME/CFS symptoms may be seen in other syndromes like long COVID. “The overall clinical picture of many [post-acute infection syndromes] often overlaps with the presentation of post-infectious ME/CFS or fibromyalgia, or resembles other fatiguing, neurological, or rheumatic disorders,” noted Akiko Iwasaki, PhD, of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and co-authors in a recent Nature Medicine review.

The NHIS estimates were based on household interviews with 57,133 adults (29,482 in 2021 and 27,651 in 2022) conducted either in person or by telephone. ME/CFS was determined by a “yes” response to two survey questions: whether respondents had ever been told by a doctor or other health professional that they had CFS or ME, and whether they still had CFS or ME.

The percentage of adults who said they had ME/CFS was 0.7% among respondents ages 18-39, climbed to 2.0% and 2.1% among those ages 50-59 and 60-69, respectively, then fell to 1.4% among people 70 and older.

White adults (1.5%) were more likely than Hispanic (0.8%) or Asian adults (0.7%) to have ME/CFS. Black adults (1.2%) were more likely than Asian adults to have ME/CFS, but the difference between Black and Hispanic adults was not statistically significant.

People with a family income below 100% of the federal poverty level had the highest percentage of ME/CFS at 2.0%, followed by those at 100% to 199% (1.7%), then those at 200% or more (1.1%).

As rurality increased, so did the percentage of ME/CFS. Estimates of ME/CFS were 1.0% and 1.1% in large central and large fringe metro areas, respectively, 1.5% in medium and small metropolitan areas, and 1.9% in non-metropolitan areas.

“As the prevalence estimates in this report are based on a doctor’s diagnosis, adults who are undiagnosed are not included in this analysis,” Vahratian and colleagues noted. “True prevalence estimates may be higher, as previous studies suggest that many people with ME/CFS are undiagnosed.”

  • Judy George covers neurology and neuroscience news for MedPage Today, writing about brain aging, Alzheimer’s, dementia, MS, rare diseases, epilepsy, autism, headache, stroke, Parkinson’s, ALS, concussion, CTE, sleep, pain, and more. Follow

Primary Source

NCHS Data Brief

Source Reference: Vahratian A, et al “Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome in adults: United States, 2021-2022” NCHS Data Brief 2023; DOI: 10.15620/cdc:134504.

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