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Life expectancy slips and leading medical issues: These five graphs show Australia’s health is in flux

Covid became a leading cause of death, pushing down life expectancy slightly.

Covid became a leading cause of death, pushing down life expectancy slightly. Photo: AAP

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has released a treasure trove of data about the nation’s health after the pandemic started, highlighting immediate issues and emerging long-term trends.

The biennial AIHW report includes insights about the health problems Australians are suffering at different stages of their lives, and the huge effect of Covid-19, which has emerged as a leading cause of death.

Life expectancy slips

A headline finding in the AIHW data is that life expectancy slipped in Australia between 2019-21 and 2020-22, falling 0.1 years for both males and females because of the pandemic.

Covid became the third leading cause of death in Australia in 2021-22, with 12 million confirmed cases across the country as at March 2024 driving a spike in what’s called “excess mortality”.

The fall in life expectancy is a sad blip in an otherwise positive long-term trend for Australians, who can expect to live 85 years for females and 81 years for males, the AIHW reports.

That’s up more than 40 per cent since the start of the 20th century, when it was closer to 50.

Rise of chronic conditions

The AIHW data also parses through the biggest health problems facing Australians.

First, while mortality rates have fallen drastically in Australia over the past century, there has been a huge increase in deaths attributed to long-term chronic health conditions in that time.

“As Australians are living longer, other chronic conditions have appeared among the leading causes of death,” the AIHW said in its report.

“Dementia has also emerged as a leading cause of death, accounting for 9.0 per cent of all deaths in 2022 … overall, chronic conditions contributed to 90 per cent of all deaths in 2022.”

More than one in five people (21.9 per cent) report having two or more chronic conditions – that’s almost a third higher than the rate in 2007-8 (16.5 per cent).

Meanwhile, the proportion of people who report no chronic conditions has fallen about 13.3 per cent – down to only one in two Australians.

Second, it’s clear that leading health problems causing hospitalisation differ drastically depending on age, though conditions related to the digestive system are inter generational.

In fact, “digestive system diseases” are a top-three reason for hospitalisation across four entire age brackets from 5-14 all the way to 45-64, as the below graphic demonstrates.

Rise of vaping

There has been an enormous 481 per cent increase in the proportion of Australians aged 18 to 24 who use e-cigarettes (vapes) daily over the past decade, though from an extremely low base.

Almost one in 10 (9.3 per cent) say they vape daily, up from 1.6 per cent before Covid (2019).

Smoking rates among this cohort have fallen, down almost a quarter (24 per cent) in 2001 to 5.9 per cent in 2022-23.

At face value that might suggest that a substitution effect is occurring, but the AIHW warns that this data can’t be used to provide “strong evidence” that vaping stops tobacco smoking or that vaping is a gateway to smoking.

“Regardless of the potential relationships between tobacco smoking and use of e-cigarettes, the population groups most likely to be using e-cigarettes were different to those most likely to smoke tobacco,” the AIHW said.

Mental health

Another major trend across the healthcare system has been the steady rise in people seeking help for mental health conditions, as the below graph demonstrates.

The figures have a distributional dimension too, with the AIHW finding that areas with higher proportion of people experiencing economic disadvantage had higher rates of consumers.

“In 2021, the population rate in least disadvantaged areas were [sic] 14 per cent compared with 9.1 per cent for the most disadvantaged areas,” the AIHW said.

“This difference has grown over time.”

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