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Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine


What is Prevention?

When you hear the word prevention, it's sometimes hard not to conjure up images of diseases being all but wiped from existence. And while there are certainly some examples of this -- like the eradication in developed nations of once-common diseases like polio and small pox -- prevention today refers mainly to lowering the risk of disease.

This is largely because the most common diseases in developed nations today are chronic disease -- like heart disease and cancer. And chronic diseases tend to be caused by a combination of many different factors, some of which are under a person's control (like diet), some of which are out of person's control (like age), and some of which are still unknown. With so many factors driving risk -- only a portion of which can actually be changed -- the realistic goal of prevention becomes lowering the risk of disease, not eliminating it.

It's similar to putting in a cross walk at a dangerous intersection. The new cross walk will certainly cut down on the number of pedestrians who get hurt while crossing the street, but it will not totally eliminate the problem because there are many other factors that also come into play -- like the experience of the drivers, the weather, and the alertness of the pedestrians.

So although the risk of most chronic diseases can't be totally eliminated, it can still be significantly reduced. If everyone in the United States led a healthy lifestyle, 80 percent of the cases of heart disease and diabetes could be avoided, as could 70 percent of the cases of stroke and over 50 percent of all cases of cancer.

Use Your Disease Risk to see what healthy changes you can make to lower your risk of these diseases.