Aussie health check-up: Good but room for improvement

National report card examines COVID-19 and other health issues in Australia

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PRESSURE POINTS: The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report gives a picture of the nation's health in 2020.

PRESSURE POINTS: The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report gives a picture of the nation's health in 2020.


We're living longer but COVID-19, chronic disease, obesity, inequality still major concerns: report


Australia has had its latest health check-up. And while we may not have been given a clean bill of health - with most of the nation still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic - there is some good news to take away.

According to this latest two-yearly report card on our health, Australians can expect to live longer and have a better chance at beating cancer or evading coronary heart disease.

But while we're doing well, there's room for improvement. That's the takeout message from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report released on Thursday.

Institute deputy chief executive Matthew James said the report had come at an important time.

"More than any other event in recent history, the pandemic has led Australians to focus on our health, the health of our families and communities, and demonstrated the importance of the health system," he said.

Life expectancy

Australians are living longer, with more of those years lived in good health. Around four in 10 people aged 65 and over say they are in excellent or very good health.

In 2016-2018, men aged 65 could expect to live for another 19.9 years, and women another 22.6 years. This is up from 55.2 and 58.8 years, respectively, for people born in 1901-1910.

Men men had the ninth highest and females the seventh highest life expectancy at birth among the 36 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries in 2018.

At age 65, around three-quarters of life expectancy was healthy years. Years free of disability increased from 59.1 years in 2003 to 63.0 in 2015 for men, and 62.2 years in 2003 to 65.2 in 2015 for women.

In other welcoming news, the coronary heart disease death rate has fallen 82 per cent since 1980 - which could partly be due to a drop in smoking rates. But it is still our leading single cause of death.

And while older Australians fare better than younger ones on some behavioural risk factors - for example they are half as likely to smoke and are much less likely to exceed the single occasion alcohol consumption risk guideline - they are more likely to be overweight or obese and insufficiently physically active.

About seven in 10 (69 per cent) people survived at least five years after a cancer diagnosis during 2012-2016 - an improvement from about five in 10 (51 per cent) during 1987-1991. Experts have put this down to earlier detection and better treatment.

Chronic disease

It is estimated that almost half of Australians had one or more chronic conditions in 2017-18. These include cancer, cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, chronic kidney disease and mental and behavioural conditions.

"Unfortunately, Australia has the fifth highest rate of obesity out of the 23 OECD countries for which data is available," Mr James said. "In 2017-18, around two-thirds (67 per cent) of adults and one-quarter of children and adolescents were overweight or obese."

He said many, but not all, chronic conditions are largely preventable by addressing risk factors such as tobacco smoking, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, insufficient physical activity, poor diet and nutrition, and overweight and obesity.

COVID-19 deaths are stripping an average 17 years of life expectancy from every man to die from the disease and 14 years for every woman to die.

COVID-19 deaths are stripping an average 17 years of life expectancy from every man to die from the disease and 14 years for every woman to die.

Coronavirus and life expectancy

The report also includes new analysis to try to fill the gaps in our understanding of COVID-19.

An analysis of data from late January to late May showed COVID-19 deaths are wiping more than a decade of life expectancy from those who die from the disease.

It strips an average 17 years of life expectancy from every man to die from the disease and 14 years for every woman who dies.

"One way of understanding a disease's death toll is in terms of how many years of life it cost the victim, based on their expected lifespan," Mr James said.

"There is perception that the majority of COVID-19 deaths are among people who did not have a long expected lifespan prior to developing the disease. However, the Australians who died lost more years of their expected lifespan on average than those who died of our three leading causes of death: coronary heart disease, dementia and stroke."

The report found younger people are more likely to be infected by COVID-19 but older people are more likely to die from the virus.

The median age of death for people who caught coronavirus was 80.

Women aged 20-29 and 60-69 were the most likely of females to be infected, while men aged 60-79 were the most likely.

People in aged care and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were more vulnerable due to a variety of causes, including chronic health issues.

Increasing deaths from dementia

Dementia was the second-leading cause of death in 2018 (about 14,000). For females, it was the leading cause of death (9000).

The number of deaths where dementia was an underlying cause increased by 68 per cent between 2008 and 2017. Report authors said this may reflect not only an increase in the number of older people with dementia, but also changes in how dementia deaths are recorded.

It is estimated that in 2020 there are between 400,000 and 459,000 Australians with dementia. Alzheimer's disease accounts for up to 70 per cent of diagnosed cases.

All is not equal

Generally, Australians can expect to enjoy long and relatively healthy lives, however there are disparities across some population groups.

"'Often, people living in rural and remote and/or lower socioeconomic areas, people with disability, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience higher rates of illness, hospitalisation and death than other Australians," Mr James said.

"For example, people living in remote and very remote areas are 1.2 times as likely to have diabetes as people in major cities; people living in the lowest socioeconomic areas are twice as likely to have diabetes as people in highest socioeconomic areas; and Indigenous Australians are 2.9 times as likely to have diabetes as non-Indigenous Australians.

"There have been some improvements in the health of Indigenous Australians in recent years, including a fall in the Indigenous death rate across all age groups - except for those aged 75 and over - between 2008 and 2018, and rates of ear disease among Indigenous children are decreasing."

You can access the full report HERE