What is a risk factor?
Risk factors are attributes, characteristics or exposures that increase the likelihood of a person developing a disease or health disorder.
Behavioural risk factors are health-related behaviours that individuals have the most ability to modify. Behavioural risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD) include:
- poor diet
- insufficient physical activity
- alcohol consumption.
Biomedical risk factors are bodily states that have an impact on a person’s risk of disease. Some biomedical risk factors can be influenced by health behaviours. Others, such as type 1 diabetes, occur independently of behaviours. Biomedical risk factors for CVD include:
- high blood pressure (also known as hypertension)
- abnormal blood lipids, including raised cholesterol
- overweight and obesity.
There are other risk factors. Both age and sex can increase the risk of developing certain types of CVD, as can family history – through inherited genes or through sharing an environment of risky health behaviours. A large body of research shows that mental health is closely associated with CVD, with suggestions that each may have a role in causing the other (De Hert et al. 2018, Chaddha et al. 2016). These effects can arise both directly, through biological pathways, and indirectly, through health behaviours.
For most risk factors there is no known threshold at which risk begins. The relationship between risk and disease is continuous – there is an increasing effect as exposure to the risk factor increases. Having multiple risk factors further escalates risk.
Many chronic diseases, including CVD, share behavioural and biomedical risk factors. Modifying these risk factors can reduce an individual's risk of developing CVD prematurely and result in large health gains by reducing illness and rates of death.
This section presents statistics on 5 key modifiable risk factors that increase the risk of a person developing CVD – smoking, high blood pressure, abnormal blood lipids and diabetes and overweight and obesity.
The selection focusses on risk factors that are used to calculate absolute cardiovascular risk – an integrated approach that estimates the likelihood of an individual having a serious cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke, in the next 5 years.
'My attitude at that time was that while I was training, I could eat whatever I wanted. Ice cream. Junk food. I was burning it all up, so what did it matter? I knew for some time that I had high cholesterol, but I didn’t really heed the warnings I was given and thought because I was fit, I’d be fine.'
Warrawatja is a proud Wiradjuri/Wonnarua man who at age 48, had a heart attack while training for a boxing match.
For more information on these and other CVD risk factors, see:
- High blood pressure
- Overweight and obesity: an interactive insight
- Insufficient physical activity
- Poor diet
- Health risk factors among Indigenous Australians
- Australian Burden of Disease Study 2018: Interactive data on risk factor burden
Visit Risk factors for more information on this topic.
Chaddha A, Robinson EA, Kline-Rogers E, Alexandris-Souphis T, Rubenfire M 2016. Mental health and cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Medicine 129:1145–8.
De Hert M, Detraux J, Vancampfort D 2018. The intriguing relationship between coronary heart disease and mental disorders. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 20: 31–40.