Risk and Disease

Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 51 (3):320-334 (2008)
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The way that diseases such as high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, and diabetes are defined is closely tied to ideas about modifiable risk. In particular, the threshold for diagnosing each of these conditions is set at the level where future risk of disease can be reduced by lowering the relevant parameter (of blood pressure, low-density lipoprotein, or blood glucose, respectively). In this article, I make the case that these criteria, and those for diagnosing and treating other “risk-based diseases,” reflect an unfortunate trend towards reclassifying risk as disease. I closely examine stage 1 hypertension and high cholesterol and argue that many patients diagnosed with these “diseases” do not actually have a pathological condition. In addition, though, I argue that the fact that they are risk factors, rather than diseases, does not diminish the importance of treating them, since there is good evidence that such treatment can reduce morbidity and mortality. For both philosophical and ethical reasons, however, the conditions should not be labeled as pathological.The tendency to reclassify risk factors as diseases is an important trend to examine and critique.
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