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How healthy are Australians?

How healthy are Australians?

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How does your health you stack up against the rest of Australia?
How healthy are we?

What is health?
What does it mean when we say a person is ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’? At a simple level, one can view the concept of health by focusing on the individual and on the presence, or absence, of disease and medically measured risk factors.

A broader and more widely accepted view sees health as multidimensional: defining health ‘as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (WHO 1946).

Most Australians report their health as ‘good’ or better
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2014–15 National Health Survey (NHS), 85% of Australians aged 15 and over report their health as ‘good’ or better, which is similar to the previous survey in 2011–12 (ABS 2015e).

Internationally, Australia is one of the leading countries on this measure—among 34 OECD countries it ranks behind only New Zealand (90%), Canada (89%) and the United States (88%), and ranks higher than the OECD average of 69% (OECD 2015).

More than half (56%) of Australians rated their health as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good. Just over 1 in 10 (10.4%) Australians rated their health as ‘fair’ (10.7% in 2011–12), and 4.4% as ‘poor’ (4.0% in 2011–12) (ABS 2015e).

By comparison, only 39% of Indigenous Australians rated their health as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good, 37% as ‘good’, 17% as ‘fair’ and 6.9% as ‘poor’ in 2012–13 (ABS 2014a).

But there are concerns
While there are positive signs and progress on many fronts, it is clear that Australia is not healthy in every way, and some patterns and trends give cause for concern.

Chronic disease
Chronic diseases such as cancer, coronary heart disease and diabetes are becoming increasingly common in Australia due to a population that is increasing and ageing, as well as to social and lifestyle changes. Improvements in medical care have also enabled us to live longer with illnesses and diseases, and have provided access to treatments not available in the past (AIHW 2012).

In the early 20th century, people ate fewer processed and energy-dense foods, walked more, performed more manual labour and lived with few labour-saving appliances and gadgets. Today, we may be less likely than our parents and grandparents to smoke, but we are more likely to be sedentary and spend more time in front of televisions or other electronic screens.

In terms of health burden, chronic diseases are the leading cause of ill health and death in Australia, and have been for some decades—largely replacing the infectious diseases of 50–100 years ago, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis.

In 2014–15, based on self-reported data from the NHS, more than 11 million Australians (50%) had at least one of eight selected chronic conditions (arthritis, asthma, back problems, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, or a mental or behavioural condition) (ABS 2015e). Of these people, 5.3 million had two or more of the eight conditions.

There is some good news in the chronic diseases story—for example, the death rates from coronary heart disease and stroke fell by 75% and 67% respectively between 1983 and 2013

However, some findings give cause for concern:

  • In 2014–15, based on self-reported data from the NHS, incidence of coronary heart disease and acute coronary events was 1.7 times as high in men as in women (ABS 2015d).
  • In 2014–15, again based on self-reported data from the NHS, an estimated 1.2 million Australians (5.1%) had diabetes (ABS 2015e)
  • The number of new cancer cases diagnosed (excluding common non-melanoma skin cancers) more than doubled between 1982 and 2016—from 47,400 to an expected 130,500. This increase can be partly explained by the ageing and increasing size of the population and by improvements in the technologies and techniques used to identify and diagnose cancer

Overweight and obesity

  • According to the 2014–15 NHS, an estimated 11 million people aged 18 and over (63% of Australian adults) were overweight or obese—4.9 million of whom were obese. Only about one-third (35%) of Australian adults were in the normal weight range (ABS 2015e).
  • While the proportion of overweight or obese adults rose from 56% to 63% between 1995 and 2011–12, there was a much smaller increase between 2011–12 and 2014–15 (62.8% to 63.4% respectively) (ABS 2015e).
  • In 2014–15, just over 1 in 4 (26%) of children aged 5–14, and nearly 4 in 10 (37%) of young people aged 15–24, were overweight or obese (ABS 2015d).
  • In 2013, Australia was the fifth most obese country in the OECD (28% of the population aged 15 and over), behind the United States (35%), Mexico (32%), New Zealand (31%) and Hungary (29%) (OECD 2015).

Nutrition and physical activity

  • A healthy diet and regular physical activity are important factors in maintaining a healthy weight. According to the 2014–15 NHS, the vast majority of adults (95%) (ABS 2015e) and children aged 5–14 (98%) do not eat the recommended daily serves of fruit and vegetables (ABS 2015d).
  • In 2014–15, just over half (56%) of Australians aged 18–64 undertook sufficient physical activity per week. This proportion was little changed from 2011–12 (55%) (ABS 2015e).

There is a lot of good news on the health front in Australia—we have one of the highest life expectancies in the developed world; our overall burden of disease has fallen; and most of us rate our health as ‘good’ or better.

When ranked against other OECD countries, we rate better than average for mortality from coronary heart disease, cancers and suicide, and we have one of the lowest rates of tobacco smoking.

But as a nation, and individuals there is still much work to do!

If you need assistance with lifestyle modification, exercise or chronic disease management, contact Ben @ EPnet.

This article was written by Ben Larner – Epnet – Exercise Physiology and featured in the December/January edition of InTouch Magazine. Ben is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Sports Scientist with Exercise and Sports Science Australia with over 15 years experience in health, fitness and allied health fields. Clinics located at Planet Fitness Lambton, Charlestown and Belmont. See Ben’s profile here.