What is a Risk Factor?
Part of learning how to take charge of your health requires understanding your risk factors for different diseases. Risk factors are things in your life that increase your chances of getting a certain disease. Some risk factors are beyond your control. You may be born with them or exposed to them through no fault of your own.
Some risk factors that you have little or no control over include your:
- Family history of a disease
- Sex/gender — male or female
Some risk factors you can control include:
- What you eat
- How much physical activity you get
- Whether you use tobacco
- How much alcohol you drink
- Whether you misuse drugs
In fact, it has been estimated that almost 35 percent of all U.S. premature deaths in 2000 could have been avoided by changing just three behaviors:
- Stopping smoking
- Eating a healthy diet (eating more fruits and vegetables and less red meat)
- Getting more physical activity
You can have one risk factor for a disease or you can have many. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to get the disease. For example, if you eat healthy, exercise on a regular basis, and control your blood pressure, your chances of getting heart disease are less than if you are diabetic, a smoker, and inactive. To lower your risks, take small steps toward engaging in a healthy lifestyle, and you’ll see big rewards.
People with a family health history of chronic disease may have the most to gain from making lifestyle changes. You can’t change your genes, but you can change behaviors that affect your health, such as smoking, inactivity, and poor eating habits. In many cases, making these changes can reduce your risk of disease even if the disease runs in your family. Another change you can make is to have screening tests, such as mammograms and colorectal cancer screening. These screening tests help detect disease early. People who have a family health history of a chronic disease may benefit the most from screening tests that look for risk factors or early signs of disease. Finding disease early, before symptoms appear, can mean better health in the long run.