Snapshot of our health – and COVID

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) today released a report card on the nation’s health, including an analysis of those most likely to be affected by COVID-19 and the country’s battle with obesity.

It says that while the virus has a serious effect on the elderly and anyone in very poor health, it also has a big impact on people who may not have been considered to be at the highest risk.

The new data, from the first four months of the pandemic in Australia, found the virus had wiped more than a decade of life expectancy from those who have died from the disease – stripping an average 17 years of life expectancy from every man to die from the disease and 14 years for every woman to die.

The report said:

  • Younger Australians were more likely to be infected by COVID-19, but older people were more likely to die from the virus.
  • The median age of death for people who caught coronavirus was 80.
  • Men were more likely to die from the virus than women.
  • Australians aged 20 to 29 had the highest number of infections; people aged over 70 had the lowest.
  • Women aged 20 to 29 and 60 to 69 were the most likely among females to be infected, while men aged 60 to 79 were the most likely among males.
  • Cases acquired overseas made up the bulk of infections in the study period.
  • Three-quarters of infections picked up in Australia were from close contacts, with one in 10 cases involving an unknown contact.

As Australia struggles to control dozens of virus outbreaks – most of them in Victoria, which recorded 403 new cases to this morning, and New South Wales – the wearing of face masks is now mandatory in the lockdown areas in Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire.

AIHW deputy chief executive Matthew James said there was a perception that the majority of COVID-19 deaths were among people who did not have a long expected lifespan. However, the Australians who died had lost more years of their expected lifespan on average than those who had died of Australia’s three leading causes of death – coronary heart disease, dementia and stroke.

On the health of the nation generally, the AIHW reports that Australians are living longer. The life expectancy for males born from 2016–2018 was 80.7 years and 84.9 years for females – up from 55.2 and 58.8 years respectively for those born from 1901–1910. Australian males had the ninth highest and Australian females the seventh highest life expectancy at birth among the 36 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries in 2018.

In terms of general health issues, first the good news.

The death rate from coronary heart disease has fallen 82 per cent since 1980, although it’s still our leading single cause of death.

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) people during 1987–1991.

An estimated 11.6 per cent of Australian adults (aged 18-plus) were daily smokers in 2019 – a decrease from 12.8 per cent in 2016, and 25 per cent in 1991.

And then the bad. Obesity is an escalating issue.

Australia has the fifth highest rate of obesity out of the 23 OECD countries for which data is available. In 2017–18, around two-thirds (67 per cent) of adults and one-quarter (25 per cent) of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

Almost half of Australians (47 per cent, or more than 11 million) have a chronic condition such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, asthma or a mental health condition. Many – but not all – chronic conditions are largely preventable, said Mr James, 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.

The AIHW also reported on our health system.

It found that on an average day, Australians make 430,000 visits to general practitioners, fill 830,000 prescriptions under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and there are 32,000 hospitalisations.

Over the past two decades, the health sector in Australia has grown faster than the rest of the economy, as well as the population.

“In the 20-year period to 2017–18, total health expenditure in Australia increased from $77.5 billion to $185.4 billion in real terms, and spending per person increased from $4200 to $7490,’ Mr James said.

“As a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP), health expenditure increased from 7.6 per cent in 1997–98 to a peak of 10.3 per cent in 2015–16. It has since declined to 10 per cent in 2017–18.”

Governments funded about two-thirds (68 per cent) of health spending in 2017–18, with funds primarily raised through tax revenue. As a proportion of tax revenue, health spending by governments represented 24 per cent in 2017–18, a decline from 26 per cent in 2016–17 (reflecting strong revenue growth in 2017–18).

Over the past five years, the proportion of health spending funded by individuals declined and in both 2016–17 and 2017–18, personal spending on health reflected less than 0.4 per cent of individual wealth, the lowest proportion since 2000–01.

Between 2014–15 and 2018–19, the total number of hospitalisations in Australia increased by an average of 3.3 per cent – faster than the average population growth of 1.6 per cent over the same period.

Given that many chronic health conditions are largely preventable, are we not taking our own health seriously enough?

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Janelle Ward
Janelle Ward
Energetic and skilled editor and writer with expert knowledge of retirement, retirement income, superannuation and retirement planning.
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