Risk Factors and a Healthy Lifestyle

We're all keen to remain active and healthy until we're well into old age and yet many people seem to die far too early in life! Hardly a week passes without us hearing of someone fairly prominent dying in their 30s or 40s, even people who appear to be extremely fit and healthy!

Clearly it's all to easy to take health and well-being for granted and ignore what we can't see or hear or feel. And yet we are hearing more and more about the phrase "risk factors". What does it mean?

Risk factors are things we either do to ourselves or things that happen to us or inside us which influence the speed with which we accumulate damage to specific organs or systems in our body. And when enough damage occurs something catastrophic happens, such as having a stroke or a heart attack or getting obvious signs of a cancer.

One would have to have beeen living deep in the heart of darkest Africa far away from newspapers, television, radio, the Internet and books for the past 50 years not to have heard of how bad smoking is for one's health. Smoking is regarded as a major risk factor for quite a number of different major illnesses and medical catastrophes such as strokes and heart attacks. And smoking is visible for everyone to see (and smell) and it's something one does to oneself (and also to others by means of passive smoking!).

Some risk factors are more subtle than smoking: having high blood pressure is known to be a major risk factor for having strokes and heart attacks and yet high blood pressure doesn't cause any visible or obvious changes in a person's appearance. High blood pressure doesn't make people feel any different unless it's extremely high or unless it rises from a normal level to a very high level in a short span of time.

Similarly one can have diabetes mellitus for as long as two years before developing any symptoms of illness! And yet diabetes is a well known risk factor for having both heart attacks and strokes.

And finally some risk factors do not cause any signs or symptoms whatsoever until a catastrophe has already happened! For example having a high cholesterol level in one's blood causes absolutely no symptoms whatsoever.

Sometimes it's a bit confusing thinking about all the different risk factors which contribute to having heart attacks. Perhaps an analogy may make it easier to understand how different risk factors can all "conspire" to increase a person's risk for a major catastrophic medical event.

Think of a car - it needs all it's tyres to be inflated and free of punctures to be able to drive. Each wheel is independent of the others and yet it only takes one tyre to be punctured and the car won't be able to continue.

Now think of one tyre being the "smoking tyre". If you smoke you have a nail sticking into your tyre. The nail is visible because smoking is quite obvious! The more you smoke the bigger then nail is and the bigger the nail the greater the likelihood that it will eventually work it's way through the rubber and cause a puncture.

Another tyre is the blood pressure tyre. The higher your blood pressure the bigger is the blood pressure nail sticking into this tyre. Now this nail isn't always visible - it usually starts off very small and is invisible but as one grows older it gets bigger and sometimes it's spotted by the doctor who paints a yellow circle around it to make you aware that it's there. But he or she has to find it first!

Another tyre is the cholesterol tyre. Again, the higher the amount of cholesterol (especially the bad type of cholesterol) in your blood the bigger is the cholesterol nail in this tyre. You cannot see or feel this nail but it's definitely there. You can actually make it bigger by eating the wrong sort of food but you can't know how big the nail is until a doctors does a test on it.

The fourth tyre is the diabetes tyre. And it can have a nail in it which gets larger the more poorly one controls ones diabetes and the longer the diabetes has been out of control! And this nail nearly always starts out invisible and stays this way until the diagnosis is made!

Each and every tyre can have a nail in it if you're really unlucky and obviously the more tyres with nails in them the greater the risk for one of the tyres eventually puncturing which makes the car, that is YOU, stop in its tracks!

By dealing with one risk factor out of several one is only doing a little bit of good.

Hopefully this analogy makes it a little bit easier to understand how different risk factors can be quite independent of one another but add together to increase the risk of disaster happening!