Life expectancy drops for first time in 30 years, data reveals

Average life expectancy has dropped in Australia for the first time in 30 years – but Aussies are still among the longest-lived people in the world, new data has revealed.

Australia’s overall health as a nation is still fairly high, despite impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the biannual Australia’s health report, compiled by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

Changing habits mean we’re spending more years in good health, but at the same time chronic conditions continue to place a significant burden of disease on many people, particularly older Australians.

Average life expectancy falls

But it was the slight dip in average life expectancy for both men and women that has eyebrows raised, with both dropping by 0.1 years, to 81.2 and 85.3 years respectively, for the first time since the mid-1990s.

Matthew James, AIHW deputy CEO, says the drop is almost certainly caused by an increase in deaths due to the tail-end of the pandemic and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

“The last time we released an Australia’s health report, it was mid-2022 and Australia was in the middle of the Omicron wave of the pandemic,” he says.

“Even though life expectancy in Australia decreased in 2020–2022, it was still higher than it was in 2017–2019, prior to the pandemic, by 0.3 years for males and females.

“COVID-19 became the third leading cause of death in Australia in 2022, marking the first time in over 50 years that an infectious disease has been in the top five causes of death.”

Despite the dip, life expectancy in Australia still ranks fourth highest among the 38 OECD countries, behind Japan, South Korea and Switzerland. Bigger falls in life expectancy were seen in the United States (from 78.9 in 2019 to 76.4 in 2021) and the United Kingdom (from 81.3 in 2019 to 80.4 in 2020).

And to see how far we’ve really come, life expectancy in Australia now is 40 per cent higher than at the beginning of the 20th century.

We’re living longer, but are we living healthier?

That gradual increase in life expectancy over time has also meant that the number of years Aussies spend in good health has also increased. The report shows that from 2003 to 2023, men gained a total of 2.2 years in full health (from 69.4 to 71.6 years) and women gained a total of 0.8 years in full health (from 72.8 to 73.6 years).

But at the same time, the average number of years we spend in ill-health has also increased (from 8.7 to 9.7 years for males and from 10.2 to 11.5 years for females), placing significant demands on the healthcare system.

Taking a bird’s eye look at the overall picture, the AIHW uses ‘burden of disease’ to measure the impact of diseases and injuries at a population level. The measurement combines the total number of years living with ill-health (non-fatal burden) with the total number of years of life lost due to dying prematurely (fatal burden).

The data showed that in 2023 alone, Aussies lost a total of 5.6 million years of healthy life due to either ill-health or dying prematurely.

But overall, there has been an 11 per cent decline in total burden (after adjusting for population ageing) between 2003 and 2023.

The AIHW says this has been driven by a 27 per cent decrease in the rate of fatal burden, while the non-fatal burden rate increased by 6.3 per cent.

Does it surprise you that our average life expectancy has fallen? Is it a cause for concern? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: Two thirds of Aussies are overweight

Brad Lockyer
Brad Lockyer
Brad has deep knowledge of retirement income, including Age Pension and other government entitlements, as well as health, money and lifestyle issues facing older Australians. Keen interests in current affairs, politics, sport and entertainment. Digital media professional with more than 10 years experience in the industry.


  1. A fall of 0.1% is just a blip on the radar and meaningless in the overall scheme of things. I see the fall is 2% in the US. Must be those who followed Trump’s recommended Covid treatment and diet dying sooner.

  2. I agree with David Ryder that the small deterioration in a single year due to an infectious disease doesn’t necessarily flag a reversal of the very longstanding trend to lower mortality rates and longer lifespans. Forty years ago, Peter Gerard (an actuary colleague from the Office of the Australian Government Actuary) and I wrote a paper in which we noted that the number of deaths in Australia in any single year varied by more than what you would have expected if mortality rates were stable from year to year, and we identified the cause then as the number of deaths associated with influenza. Flu claimed significantly varying numbers of lives from year to year according to the relative severity of the virus each year. Similarly COVID of course has caused fluctuations.

  3. Thanks for this interesting article. I was diagnosed in 2023 Feb with Pancreatic Cancer after being super healthy for 35 years. I was 73yrs of age. I had a good chance of living as I was in early stage 2. I had a course of Chemotherapy followed by the Whipple operation and then some months later another mop up/top up dose of Chemotherapy. I waited 3 months for a PET SCAN and it was perfectly clear. I recently had a CT SCAN and it was clear also. It came as a huge shock and has put me into retirement a little earlier than planned. It has altered what I can eat and how much, but now I am getting around and putting many things in order. How long I will live is unknown but 5 years plus would be Nice! JILLY B

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