What Does It Mean to Be “At-Risk” For Disease?

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When scrolling through the news, you will often see headlines like “How to lower your risk for heart disease” or “Are you at risk for being hospitalized for COVID?”. What does “at-risk” really mean? How can you lower your risk and improve your overall quality of life?

What does it mean to be at risk for a disease?

If you are at risk for a disease or condition, then you have certain risk factors that could increase the chance of it developing.

What is a risk factor?

A risk factor is anything that can increase the chance of developing a chronic disease or being infected by a virus, bacteria, or fungi. There are two types of risk factors: modifiable and non-modifiable.

Modifiable risk factors are things that a person can change to reduce their risk of developing a disease. These include lifestyle choices such as quitting smoking or making dietary changes and other preventive steps such as getting an annual flu shot or being prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Non modifiable risk factors include things that cannot be changed due to genetics, age, gender, or family history. An example is risk of developing certain cancers such as breast or colorectal cancer, as these can sometimes run in families. The good news about this type of risk factor is that there are ways to watch or “screen” for the development of disease. These screening tools include mammograms or colonoscopies and can help to diagnose and treat disease at an early stage.

How do you lower your risk?

First, learn what your risks are. Understanding your risk for a specific disease or condition is important for prevention and early detection. If you have a family history of chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease, you may have an increased risk of having the same disease yourself.

Chronic medical conditions can become risk factors for infectious diseases. For example, if you have a condition that affects your lungs, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you may have an increased risk of severe infections from viral illnesses like influenza, COVID, or RSV.

Here are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing infectious or chronic diseases:

There may be other situations outside of your day-to-day life when you will need to think about preventive measures to lower your risks.
For example:

  • Are you traveling to another country? Consider steps such as getting recommended travel vaccines or taking preventive medication before your trip.
  • Is there about to be a new baby in your life? Think about ways to lower baby’s risk of getting sick from you.
    • Wash your hands frequently. Postpone a visit if you are not feeling well. Babies are at a higher risk for some diseases like pertussis (whooping cough). Getting a Tdap before baby is born will protect you and baby.
    • Breastfeeding or feeding a baby human milk can also pass along antibodies that protect the baby from some illnesses.

Remember, it is always a good idea to consult with your healthcare provider on the types of screenings and other preventive measures you can take to reduce your risk of chronic and infectious disease and improve your overall quality of life.

Additional resources and information:

Understanding Health Risks

Making Sense of Your Health Risks