Health Risk Factors Definition

Health Risk Factors – the variables that create increased vulnerability to illness and injury are numerous and varied. Some health risks are fixed (immutable), such as those related to heredity, gender, and age. Many health risk factors are modifiable (mutable) and correlate to lifestyle and habit.

The combination of fixed and modifiable risk factors helps one assess an individual’s overall likelihood of developing health conditions such as cardiovascular disease (cvd), diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, colorectal cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, cervical cancer, and breast cancer. Though researchers separate fixed and modifiable risk factors from the perspective of health prevention opportunities, within the body the effects of all health risk factors intertwine and affect each other in immeasurable ways.

Fixed (Immutable) Health Risk Factors

Age and gender are the primary fixed risk factors for health. Other fixed health risk factors include personal and family health history (heredity). Though it is not possible to change fixed risk factors, it is possible to influence and somewhat mitigate them through lifestyle and by controlling modifiable risk factors.


The risk for many health conditions increases with age as body systems and structures begin to deteriorate. Age further carries with it the specter of lifestyle choices and their health consequences, often compounding health risk. With increasing age, for example, the body becomes less efficient in its ability to use insulin.

This increases the risk for type 2 diabetes. Physical inactivity and eating habits may further challenge the body’s insulin efficiency, as well as contribute to obesity, an independent risk factor for diabetes. In combination, these circumstances significantly boost the likelihood of developing diabetes in older age. Cardiovascular function also becomes less efficient with age, as blood vessels lose elasticity (often as a result of atherosclerosis).


Some health conditions, of course, affect only men (prostate and testicular disorders) or only women (cervical, ovarian, and uterine disorders as well as pregnancy-related conditions). Other health conditions may predominantly affect one over the other gender, such as breast cancer. Popular perception erroneously holds that some health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer, are primarily health risks for men.

Though men are more likely than women to develop cardiovascular disease earlier in life, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death and disability among men and women alike. Doctors diagnose more women than men with colorectal cancer each year.

Health History

Personal health history significantly influences future health circumstances and often integrates with lifestyle (modifiable risk factors). Some health conditions are purely of hereditary origin, such as cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, or congenital heart malformations. Some acquired conditions may result in residual health effects, such as chronic otitis media (middle ear infection) that may have consequential hearing loss. Other conditions may reflect a genetic predisposition as well as lifestyle choices, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Advances in genetics and molecular medicine are making it possible to determine whether a person has a hereditary health condition. Though such knowledge does not change the risk for developing the condition, it does allow the person and his or her doctor to establish a plan for managing the condition. Making changes in lifestyle may delay the condition’s development or further mitigate its the adverse effects.

Modifiable (Mutable) Health Risk Factors

Cigarette smoking, eating habits, and physical activity are the primary modifiable risk factors for health. Other health risk factors include occupation, recreational activities, alcohol use, substance abuse, seat belt use, helmet use, and preventive health measures such as vaccination and safer sex practices. Modifiable health risk factors may directly cause disease, such as cigarette smoking, or contribute to the circumstances that allow health conditions to develop, as with diabetes.

Cigarette Smoking

Since the 1950s, research has linked cigarette smoking with a growing list of health conditions. There are no known health benefits of cigarette smoking. The leading health consequences of smoking are cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. Smoking also causes or contributes to dozens of other health conditions along the entire continuum of life: it influences conception, pregnancy, childhood health (environmental cigarette smoke), nutrition, chronic diseases, numerous cancers, and life expectancy.

Eating Habits

The advent of fast food and processed food in the 1960s forever changed eating habits in the United States. Three decades later two thirds of the American population was overweight, a significant general health risk. Most fast foods and processed foods combine low nutritional content and excessive portion sizes.

Fast-food meals often feature “deals” that offer more food for a small increase in price, giving the impression of value. Processed foods, such as quick-prepare meals and snack items, come in packaging often implies the product is a single serving when instead the package contains two, three, or even four servings. When fast foods and processed foods are the mainstay of a person’s eating habits, calorie consumption often is two to four times what it should be.

Fewer than 20 percent of Americans eat the American Cancer Society’s recommended 9 to 12 daily servings of fruits and vegetables, yet more than a third exceed the American Heart Association’s guideline limiting dietary fat consumption to 30 percent of total calories. Most Americans need to eat fewer processed and fried foods and more fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products to meet the nutritional needs of their bodies.

Physical Activity

Despite the proliferation of gyms, health clubs, and fitness centers over the past few decades, fewer than 20 percent of American adults get the daily physical exercise their bodies need to maintain cardiovascular health and overall metabolic efficiency. Lack of regular physical activity may be more of a factor than eating habits for health maintenance as well as development of health conditions.

An adult needs a minimum 30 minutes of sustained, moderately intense, physical activity (such as walking) every day and one to two hours of sustained, moderate to high intensity, exercise (such as swimming, running, bicycling, or basketball) three or four times a week to maintain optimal health.


Obesity, a combination of factors with eating habits and physical activity at the hub, emerged in the 1990s as an independent health risk factor for numerous health conditions. Key among them are hypertension (high blood pressure), heart failure, obstructive sleep apnea, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, infertility, and gallbladder disease.

The current clinical standard for assessing health risk associated with body weight is the body mass index (bmi), a mathematical calculation that converts height-and-weight ratio to an aggregate measure of body mass. Researchers have been able to correlate such measures with health conditions and know that lowering BMI, which only occurs through weight loss, correspondingly lowers health risk.

Reducing Personal Health Risk

Health risk factors tend to converge in patterns of increased susceptibility. A person who develops diabetes, for example, acquires an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and cataracts. As well, the risks for these conditions further increase with age, and family history may also play a role. The key to mitigating health risks is sustained modifications in lifestyle habits that allow a person to maintain optimal health.

Sometimes these modifications are in response to the emergence of health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or cancer. Though the health condition becomes a risk factor as well, changes that improve modifiable risk factors provide cumulative health benefits. For example, a person who has a heart attack may begin walking every day as part of a cardiac rehabilitation program. The regular physical exercise improves cardiovascular health, and over time the person loses 10 or 20 pounds. Blood pressure, blood glucose (sugar), and blood cholesterol levels also come down.

Nearly everyone can benefit from doing as much as is possible to reduce health risk factors. Seldom is it too late to make changes that improve health and quality of life.


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