Risk factors and human health and behaviour

Risk factors are those inherited, environmental and behavioural influences which are known or thought to increase the likelihood of physical or mental health problems. Risk factors increase the probability of illness and of dying early — but do not guarantee that people with the risk factors will suffer any harmful consequences. Risk factors are worked out across a large population of people, so although they are relevant to us all not everyone will be equally affected. For example someone might drive dangerously and never have an accident, or drink too much alcohol and never get any of the illnesses associated with alcohol excess.

Three men enjoy a bottle of alcoholic drink.

Figure 3.3 The amount of alcohol we drink is a modifiable risk factor. (Photo: Tom Heller)

Risk factors can be divided into two categories:

  1. Modifiable (changeable or controllable) risk factors. These are things that individuals can change and control such as their sedentary lifestyle, smoking, drinking alcohol (Figure 3.3), or poor dietary habits.
  2. Non-modifiable (non-changeable or non-controllable) risk factors. These are factors such as age, sex and inherited genes and are things that individuals cannot change or do not have control over.

These two categories of risk factors may be interrelated and in fact the combined potential for harm from a number of risk factors is greater than the sum of their individual parts. If an old person (old age – as a non-modifiable factor) smokes and drinks (smoking and drinking are modifiable risk factors) to excess as well they are especially likely to become ill with problems related to smoking and drinking.

Over the years, knowledge about the impact of risk factors has continued to grow. In developed countries approximately 40% of deaths are caused by behaviour patterns that could be modified by preventive interventions. In developing countries like Ethiopia, more than 80% of the disease burden and its related morbidity and mortality is due to communicable diseases and malnutrition — which are largely preventable through appropriate preventive measures. Therefore, much of the focus of your health education work as a Health Extension Practitioner needs to be helping individuals identify and control their modifiable risk factors.

Make a list of three modifiable health risk factors and three non-modifiable health risk factors.

Show answer

Modifiable risk factors are those we can do something about such as smoking and drinking as individuals, and malaria and TB prevention as whole communities.

Non-modifiable risk factors are those we can do nothing about such as age, gender and our genetic inheritance.

Last modified: Monday, 23 June 2014, 10:20 PM