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Biomedical risk factors are bodily states that contribute to the development of chronic disease. These states can be caused by a range of factors including: genetic, socioeconomic, psychological and behavioural, or a combination of these. Biomedical factors contribute to the risk of developing serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and chronic kidney disease. Biomedical risk factors may also be influenced by behavioural risk factors—for example, physical inactivity and poor diet can adversely affect blood pressure and blood cholesterol. For more information on these in older Australians, see Behavioural risk factors. Behavioural and biomedical risk factors tend to increase each other’s effects when they occur together in an individual . Overall, older Australians experience a higher prevalence of biomedical risk factors than younger Australians, and these generally increase with age. This snapshot focuses on 3 biomedical risk factors that have direct and specific risks for health. These risk factors may be able to be modified by undertaking sufficient physical activity and eating a healthy diet.
Blood pressure is the force that is exerted by the blood on the walls of the arteries (Box 1). When high blood pressure is controlled by medication, the risk of disease is reduced, although not to the levels seen in unaffected people .
High blood pressure—also known as hypertension—is a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases including stroke, coronary heart disease, heart failure, peripheral vascular disease and chronic kidney disease . Blood pressure is measured by the level of systolic pressure (pressure in the arteries when the heart beats, pumping blood into the arteries) and diastolic pressure (pressure in the arteries when the heart is relaxed between beats), expressed as millimetres of mercury (mmHg). Blood pressure varies between individuals; as such, there are a number of different factors a medical practitioner will consider when diagnosing high blood pressure. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines blood pressure of 140/90 mmHg or more as high. Individuals receiving medication for blood pressure are also defined as having high blood pressure [10, 8].
The proportion of adults with high blood pressure increases with age. In 2014–15, 1 in 2 people (47%) aged 75 and over measured high blood pressure (42% for men and 51% for women) compared with 42% among people aged 65–74 (Figure 1).
Source: AIHW 
In Indigenous people blood pressure also increases with age, however, the prevelance of high blood pressure for Indigenous people is higher than for non-Indigenous people in younger age groups—the greatest disparity between prevalence is for the 35–44 age group (1.6 times as high for Indigenous people). For Indigenous people aged 55 and over the proportion with high blood pressure (36%) is similar to that of non-Indigenous people (38%) .
Blood lipids are fats in the blood and include cholesterol (a fatty substance that is an essential part of cell walls and is produced in the liver) and triglycerides (fat in the blood that assists in transporting and supplying metabolic energy throughout the body) . Dyslipidaemia—abnormal levels of blood lipids—is a risk factor for chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease and for some types of stroke. Abnormal levels of blood lipids have previously been linked to atherosclerotic damage to arteries and heart disease .
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2011–12 Australian Health Survey classifies a person as having dyslipidaemia if they had one or more of the following:
For both men and women, the prevalence of dyslipidaemia generally increases with age, peaking in the 65–74 age group (78% for men and 84% for women). Although the proportion was lower among those aged 75 and over (74% and 81%, respectively). The prevalence of specific types of dyslipidaemia varies:
People aged 65 and over (32%) in 2011–12 had a total cholesterol level that was considered high.
People aged 65 and over (22%) had low levels of HDL (good) cholesterol in their blood.
People aged 65 and over (30%) had high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol.
People aged 65 and over had high levels of triglycerides (some people have more than one type of dyslipidaemia) .
Impaired glucose regulation is a characteristic of pre-diabetes, a condition in which blood glucose levels are higher than normal, although not high enough to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. There are two measures of impaired glucose regulation—impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) and impaired fasting glucose (IFG) (Box 2). Both IGT and IFG are pre-diabetic states associated with insulin resistance—where cells fail to respond normally to insulin—which leads to high levels of blood sugar. Both of IGT and IFG are risk factors for type 2 diabetes, and are associated with a greater risk of heart disease. .
To test glucose tolerance, people fast for 8–12 hours and are given a glucose drink and their blood sugar levels are measured before and 2 hours after drinking. People are diagnosed with IGT if they have blood glucose levels between 7.8 and 11.0 mmol/L 2 hours after the test (levels above this are classified as diabetes).
People are diagnosed with IFG if their blood glucose levels are between 6.1 mmol/L and 6.9 mmol/L after fasting (levels above this are classified as diabetes) . The ABS 2011–12 Australian Health Survey measured data on IFG, however, IGT was not measured and is not available for reporting in this snapshot.
For more information on diabetes in older Australians, see Diabetes.
IFG is more prevalent among older Australians, with 7% of people aged 65–74, and 8% of people aged 75 and over having the condition. Overall, 7% of older Australians had IFG in 2011–12. A further 13% had fasting blood glucose levels that classified them as having diabetes (IFG of 7.0mmol/L or above) .