By Erika Fehrenbach Prell
Since starting my nursing career more years ago than I care to admit, I have noticed more and more that my friends, family, and acquaintances are very confused after their medical appointments. With the growing demands on medical professionals to see more patients in a shorter amount of time, not to mention the short supply of primary care providers, the time to adequately explain information to patients is usually less. Now, to be fair, I do not know if this is a new occurrence, or if people just feel comfortable asking me to decipher for them. Most likely, it is a combination of both of these.
As some of you may know, my dad’s best friend, Bob, died of a heart attack at the age of 47. His death was the reason my dad, Tom, did not die of his own heart attack three months later as he recognized the symptoms and took them seriously. This greatly impacted my decision to go into nursing and pursue my Master’s Degree as an Adult Nurse Practitioner. My vision since that time has always been to help as many people as I can start their journey to their healthiest selves. This vision, combined with the confusion many health care consumers are experiencing, sparked an idea: a regular “Learn the Lingo” blog post to help all of you decipher and sift through the medical talk. My hope is that this knowledge will shed light on what you are reading and hearing so you can be empowered to make decisions and take action to improve your health.
What exactly are risk factors?
I think starting from the beginning is always good. The term “risk factors” gets thrown around a lot and often providers assume that everyone knows what these are. But we all know what happens with assuming, right? Let’s clear this up!
Risk factors are attributes or characteristics of a person’s health that increase the chance, or risk, of developing a disease. The more risk factors you have for a given disease increases the likelihood of developing that disease. Everyone has different risk factors. Risk factors are further broken down into types called modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors. Understanding the difference between these types is very important to reduce your risk of disease.
Non-modifiable risk factors are the risk factors for disease that you cannot change. These include age, ethnicity/race, family history, gender, and genetics. You are born with your non-modifiable risk factors. Even though you cannot change these things, knowing how they could impact your health are very important to help lower your overall risk of developing a disease, especially preventable illnesses such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and many heart diseases like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and coronary artery disease. You can make lifestyle changes that help control the effects of modifiable risk factors.
Modifiable risk factors are the risk factors for disease that you can take action to change. These include, but are not limited to, smoking/tobacco use, high blood pressure, diabetes/pre-diabetes, physical inactivity, being overweight, high cholesterol, diet, socioeconomic status, and stress. Each disease has its own associated risk factors, but this list is very common across medical diagnoses. Making positive choices or changes in modifiable risk factors can affect your non-modifiable risk factors, thus, decreasing your overall risk of acquiring a disease.
Let’s take myself as an example in relation to cardiac disease. I have a strong family history and genetics of heart disease since my father had advanced coronary disease requiring bypass surgery at the age of 47, as well as several other family members with coronary artery disease. My age, gender, and ethnicity/race do not increase my risk in this case. I could choose to increase physical activity, decrease my weight, eat a heart-healthy diet, and control stress to decrease my risk of heart disease, even with the risk from my family history. My knowledge of risk factors for a specific disease and the choices I make to help prevent it gives me the control back for my health.
Here's a quick summary:
Knowing about risk factors gives you valuable information about what lifestyle changes may help you decrease your risk of getting certain diseases. Even those non-modifiable risk factors can be affected positively with the right lifestyle changes. This puts you in the driver's seat of your health!
Erika Fehrenbach Prell is passionate about inspiring and educating, others on their path to complete wellness-mind,body, and soul. This desire led Erika to the helping profession of nursing, and she obtained her Master's Degree as a Nurse Practitioner in 2007. Erika specialized in cardiac surgery, largely influenced by her personal experience with heart disease. While she loved working with this population, her heart's desire has always been to impact lives on a larger scale and from a proactive, not reactive, place. The universe answered when her path crossed with Jackie and SoulShine was born. Erika finally feels she is walking in her purpose and is excited for this journey to unfold.