Risk factors to health

  • Web report
  • Last updated: 07 Aug 2017
  • Author: AIHW

Health risk factors are attributes, characteristics or exposures that increase the likelihood of a person developing a disease or health disorder. Behavioural risk factors are those that individuals have the most ability to modify. Biomedical risk factors are bodily states that are often influenced by behavioural risk factors.

Findings from this report:
  • Almost 2 in 3 Australian adults (63%) were overweight or obese in 2014–15, similar to 2011–12

  • Almost 1 in 8 Australian adults (13%) smoked daily in 2016

  • 1 in 5 Australian adults (18%) consumed more than 2 standard drinks per day in 2016—a decrease from 22% in 2007

  • Over 1 in 3 Australian adults (34%) had high blood pressure in 2014–15—a slight rise from 32% in 2011–12

Risk factors and disease burden

To ensure our health system is aligned to our country’s health challenges, policy makers must be able to compare the effects of different conditions that cause ill-health and premature death. Burden of disease analysis considers both the non-fatal burden (impact of ill-health) and fatal burden (impact of premature death) of a comprehensive list of diseases and injuries, and quantifies the contribution of various risk factors to the total burden as well as to individual diseases and injuries.

The Australian Burden of Disease Study 2011 found the single leading risks factors contributing to disease burden were:

  1. tobacco use (accounting for 9.0% of the total burden)
  2. high body mass index (BMI) (related to overweight and obesity) (7.0% based on enhanced analysis by the AIHW published in 2017 which used updated evidence of diseases associated with overweight and obesity and enhanced modelling techniques)
  3. alcohol use (5.1%)
  4. physical inactivity (5.0%)
  5. high blood pressure (4.9%) [1, 2].

In addition, an analysis of the joint effect of all dietary risks suggested that they accounted for around 7.0% of disease burden.

There were 29 risk factors included in this study. All these risk factors combined (the joint effect) contributes greatly to the burden for endocrine disorders, cardiovascular diseases, injuries, kidney and urinary disease and cancer. The joint effect of all the risk factors included in this study accounted for 31% of the total burden of disease and injury in Australia in 2011. This illustrates the potential for health gain through disease and injury prevention by reducing exposure to these risk factors [1].

Enhanced analysis by the AIHW found that overweight and obesity contributed to 7.0% of the disease burden in Australia in 2011 [2]. This is due to updated evidence of diseases associated with overweight and obesity and enhanced modelling techniques.


  1. AIHW 2016. Australian Burden of Disease Study: impact and causes of illness and death in Australia 2011. Australian Burden of Disease Study series no. 3. Cat. no. BOD 4. Canberra: AIHW.
  2. AIHW 2017. Impact of overweight and obesity as a risk factor for chronic conditions. Australian Burden of Disease Study series no. 11. Cat. no. BOD 12. Canberra: AIHW.