Publication date: 
May 1, 2013

MELBOURNE—Australians live longer, healthier lives than people in almost every other country, but a range of ailments threatens advances made in recent years, a symposium on groundbreaking data at the University of Melbourne reveals.

Professor Alan Lopez, Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne said obesity in Australia surpassed smoking as a risk factor for premature death.
“Australians have enjoyed significantly improved health from 1990 to 2010, and that is largely due to bold public health interventions. We can thank two decades’ worth of campaigns by state and federal governments for driving down premature deaths from road injury, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), tobacco, and other health dangers,” Professor Lopez said.
The data from the landmark Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2010 (GBD 2010) show life expectancy has increased for both men and women in Australia. On average, a newborn girl can now expect to live 83.8 years, and a newborn boy, 79.2 years. By 2010, only men in Iceland, Japan, and Switzerland were living longer. These data mark a significant improvement since 1990, when women on average lived to age 80, and men less than 74.
The study shows heart disease is the leading cause of death and disability for Australians, with poor diet being the biggest risk factor and the impacts of drugs, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease on the rise.
Alzheimer’s has increased from a ranking of 26th in 1990 to ninth in 2010 as a cause of premature death, and the number of people with Alzheimer’s has increased by 170% — far more than any other leading disease. 
GBD 2010 is a collaborative project led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle, and includes the University of Melbourne as a key research partner. The study details health trends for demographics, disease, and disability for 187 countries. The work, which involved researchers at more than 300 institutions in 50 countries, generated 1 billion estimates for health challenges. It was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Professor Alan Lopez co-authored the original GBD study in 1990 and has played a lead role in the evolution of the GBD enterprise since then.
The top causes of premature death in Australia are ischemic heart disease, lung cancer, and stroke, but the impacts of heart disease and stroke are decreasing despite their relatively high rankings.
“Australia clearly has much to be proud of in terms of its health achievements, but policymakers and health experts must focus on the remaining threats to health,” explained IHME Director and GBD co-founder Dr. Christopher Murray.
“The health of Australians is increasingly challenged. Lifestyle choices constitute a major threat to health in Australia. The numbers of years of health loss due to obesity and the use of alcohol and drugs are all increasing. In particular, Australians are grappling with soaring rates of obesity due to poor diets, physical inactivity, and high BMI, blood sugar, and cholesterol.”
Statistics and information
  • Australians also live more years in good health than people in most countries — men rank fifth in terms of healthy life expectancy and women rank 10th — and they enjoy more healthy years than Americans, Britons, and New Zealanders. 
  • The longer lives of Australians are often punctuated by more sickness and disability. The top causes of disability for Australians were low back pain, major depressive disorders, other musculoskeletal problems, neck pain, falls, and anxiety, and all of these ailments are growing at double-digit rates. 
  • While ischemic heart disease was the top cause of Australian disease burden in 2010, other non-lethal ailments are all in the top 10 causes of burden, and their impact on health is increasing. These disabling conditions — as opposed to conditions that cause premature death — count for an increasing amount of health loss.
  • Deaths from road injuries have decreased by 40% as a cause of premature death over the past two decades.
  • Drug use, especially among young adults, is a greater cause of health loss in Australia than in its regional neighbors New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea.
  • The prevalence of smoking has gone down since 1990, largely due to bold, persistent, and successful tobacco control. However, the impact of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) remains high, years after cessation, as the conditions take many years to develop.
  • Many forms of cancer — including lung, colorectal, breast, prostate, and pancreatic cancers, as well as leukemia — caused Australians to lose more years of life in 2010 than in 1990. 
  • Among Australian women, lung cancer rose by an alarming 50% in 20 years. 
  • Australian health services and prevention policies have reduced the risk of child death to less than 5 per 1,000 live births, among the lowest in the world. 
  • SIDS fell from the 23rd to the 45th cause of premature death, and preterm birth complications were also reduced by 42%, from the 10th cause of death in 1990 to number 19 in 2010. 
IHME has also created a set of online data tools to visualize how diseases, injuries, and risk factors have changed over time in Australia and other countries.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) is an independent global health research center at the University of Washington that provides rigorous and comparable measurement of the world's most important health problems and evaluates the strategies used to address them. IHME makes this information freely available so that policymakers have the evidence they need to make informed decisions about how to allocate resources to best improve population health.

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William Heisel
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