Lifestyle risk factors

People’s habits and behaviours have an important impact on health. For instance, our eating behaviour, our level of physical activity, our alcohol drinking or tobacco smoking habits can affect our health. A healthier lifestyle can actually reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases and improve overall quality of life.

How do lifestyle and behaviours affect health? 

Unhealthy behaviours lie at the root of many chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and lung disease which are the leading causes of preventable death and disability. The main behaviours concerned are tobacco use, unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity and alcohol consumption. For example, an unhealthy diet can lead to obesity, which is a risk factor for diabetes but also for heart disease, stroke and certain cancers. Smoking, on the other hand, is a major risk factor for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), lung cancer and heart disease.

Do lifestyle changes improve health? 

Research shows that a small change in behaviour can make a big difference to people’s health status. Studies have indicated that an increment of approximately 30 minutes of normal walking a day for 5 days a week is associated with a 19% coronary heart disease (CHD) risk reduction. These studies concluded that walking conferred protection against CHD in a dose-response manner, that is the risk for developing CHD decreases as the walking ‘dose’ increases. This is an achievable change that could have important health impacts.

What are the most important lifestyle changes to improve health? 

Studies have shown that adopting healthy behaviours can have a major impact on health. Healthy lifestyle factors such as avoiding smoking and drinking alcohol, regular physical exercise and following a healthy diet, reduce the risk of developing the most common chronic diseases. Other important healthy behaviours are linked to preventive health care, e.g. regular control of blood pressure and blood cholesterol, and cancer screening. Lots of different actions can also contribute to better health, such as for example taking time to relax in order to reduce stress levels. 

Is a change in lifestyle and behaviours only a matter of education and will-power? 

Historically, the focus of prevention programs has been geared towards changes in individual behaviour and personal choices. These mainly include campaigns to motivate individuals to stop smoking, become more active, eat a healthier diet, etc. However, more recently, a growing body of research has shown that the physical and social surroundings have a strong influence on individuals’ behaviour. In other words, ‘lifestyle’ risk factors are no longer considered as voluntary and resulting from free choice only, because the context is also shaping the decisions we make.

Therefore, it is not enough to inform and educate individuals about the importance of healthy behaviours, but it is also necessary to create the environment(s) that promote the uptake of healthy behaviours. For example, to increase physical activity, people need to be educated about its importance, but the environment also has to be adapted, e.g. by creating a safe place for physical activity. Another example concerns the “food environment”: in order to adopt a healthy diet, food products have to be suitably composed. Authorities should, for instance stimulate the reformulation  of processed food products in order to limit lipid, sugar and salt concentrations.

Sciensano is first of all assessing the occurrence (prevalence) of lifestyle risk factors in the general population. In addition our institute is also evaluating their impact on the health status of the population, monitoring the evolution of these risk factors over time and studying the impact of the influence of environmental factors on healthy behaviour. 

Sciensano is also the national focal point of WHO, OECD and European institutions (such as Eurostat and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction) for publication of...

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