Australians are living longer lives but in poorer health, as smoking, obesity and poor diets continue to leave people susceptible to disease and death.

The latest findings from the global burden of disease study, published in the international medical journal the Lancet, analysed 286 causes of death, 369 diseases and injuries, and 87 risk factors in 204 countries and territories.

It found that while healthy life expectancy in Australia has increased steadily over 30 years to 70 years in 2019 (a 4.1-year increase from 1990), this had not risen as much as overall life expectancy (82.9 years in 2019; a 5.9-year increase from 1990), indicating that people are living longer in poor health.

The study found the top five risk factors associated with highest number of deaths in Australia in 2019 were high blood pressure (25,500 deaths), dietary risks (21,600 deaths), tobacco use (20,100 deaths), high body-mass index (18,700 deaths), and high fasting plasma glucose, which indicates diabetes (17,700 deaths). The same risk factors were associated with reduced healthy years of life.

The 30-year study included data to 2019, so the impacts of Covid-19 were not seen. But it warns that the impact of global pandemics will be exacerbated by poor underlying population health in many countries, where a rise in disease has seen life expectancy gains slowing.

A senior author of the study and an epidemiologist from the University of Melbourne, Prof Alan Lopez, said while Australia had been “remarkably successful” in controlling Covid-19 cases and especially deaths despite Victoria’s second wave, it had been much less successful in curbing obesity and risks associated with poor diet. As a result, Australia’s long-term decline in cardiovascular disease had stalled, he said.

“Australian life expectancy has not increased in the past five years,” Lopez said.

“While the immediate global public health priority is understandably the rapid control of the Covid-19 pandemic, these findings about the state of the world’s health are a wake-up call that large, avoidable causes of health loss such as smoking, alcohol, obesity and poor blood pressure and cholesterol control continue to claim millions of lives prematurely each year.”

“Of even greater concern is that the impact of this risk factor ‘cocktail’ of smoking, poor diet and inadequate control of blood pressure and other metabolic factors is increasing in many countries, including Australia, as evidenced by the stagnation in life expectancy over the past five years.”

Ischaemic heart disease was the leading cause of years spent living with disability in Australia in 2019, followed by lower back pain, falls, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and depressive disorders.

Prof Christopher Murray, director of the institute for health metrics and evaluation at the University of Washington in the US, led the research, and said most of the risk factors for disease were “preventable and treatable” if countries began addressing social and economic inequality.

“Given the overwhelming impact of social and economic development on health progress, doubling down on policies and strategies that stimulate economic growth, expand access to schooling, and improve the status of women, should be our collective priority,” Murray said. “Tackling them will bring huge social and economic benefits.”

Over the past 30 years, overall rates of death among 15 to 49-year-olds declined by 31% in Australia, the study found. But rates of death due to drug use disorders rose substantially, by 55.2% in Australia, as did rates of death due to endocrine, metabolic, blood, and immune disorders (a 75% increase).

The Heart Foundation’s general manager of heart health, Bill Stavreski, said he was concerned to see that diabetes is one of the biggest contributors to increases in health loss in Australia in the last 30 years. People with diabetes are more than twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke than people without diabetes.

“As a nation, we cannot afford to underestimate the impact these risk factors can have on our heart health, our overall health and our ability to combat the threat of future pandemics,” Stavreski said.



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