Risk Factors

What is a risk factor?

Risk factors are things in one’s life that increase the chances of developing a condition or disease. They can include things like family history, exposures to things in the environment, being a certain age or sex, being from a certain ethnic group, or already having a health condition.

Understanding Risk Factors

Part of learning how to take charge of one’s health requires understanding the risk factors for different diseases. Risk fac­tors increase the chances of getting a certain disease. Some risk factors are beyond control such as being born with them or exposed to them.

Some risk factors that one has little or no control over include:

  • Family history of a disease
  • Sex/gender — male or female
  • Ancestry

Some risk factors that can be controlled include:

  • Diet
  • Physical activity
  • Tobacco use
  • Alcohol use
  • Drug use
  • Safety in an automobile

In fact, it has been estimated that almost 35 percent of all U.S. early deaths in 2000 could have been avoided by changing just three behaviors:

  • Stopping smoking
  • Eating a healthy diet (for example, eating more fruits and vegetables and less red meat)
  • Getting more physical activity

Personal Assessment

Find out about your own health risks by completing the questionnaire at Keep Me Well. Email yourself the results of the assessment.



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.
Rarely, you can inherit a mutated gene that alone causes you to get a disease. Genes control chemical reactions in our bodies. If you inherit a faulty gene, your body may not be able to carry out an important chemical reaction. For instance, a faulty gene may make your blood unable to clot. This problem is at the root of a rare bleeding disorder. More often, you can inherit genes from one or both of your parents that put you at higher risk of certain diseases. But having a gene for a certain disease does not always mean you will get it. There are many unknown factors that may raise or lower your chances of getting the disease. 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.