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Many living a long but not-so-healthy life

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Australia’s latest check-up shows that although we are living longer than ever before poor diets, excessive drinking and inadequate exercise are undermining our health and almost half have a chronic illness.

In a comprehensive snapshot of the nation’s health, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that a baby boy born between 2012 and 2014 will, on average, live for 80.3 years and a baby girl born at the same time will live even longer, to an average 84.4 years.

However, more than 11 million Australians had at least one of eight chronic conditions, including about 1.2 million identified with diabetes – 85 per cent of whom had the largely preventable type 2 version of the condition.

In addition, 13 in every 100 smoke daily, 18 drink alcohol at risky levels and 95 do not eat the recommended servings of fruit and vegetables. Despite 55 out of 100 completing daily recommended physical activity levels, 63 per cent of Australians are overweight or obese.

The long-term decline in smoking rates has continued. The proportion of people aged 14 years and older who report never smoking rose from 58 per cent in 2010 to 60 per cent in 2013.

What kills us is changing. Cancer has overtaken heart disease for the first time as Australia’s biggest overall killer. It is predicted that 46,900 Australians will succumb to cancer this year – slightly more than 128 people a day. Nonetheless, survival rates for cancer are increasing.

More than 45 per cent of Australians aged 16 to 85 will experience a common mental disorder such as depression or anxiety, and one in seven will have suicidal thoughts in their lifetime.

Indigenous Australians continue to have a lower life expectancy and higher rates of many diseases, including diabetes, end-stage kidney disease and coronary heart disease.

AMA Vice President Dr Tony Bartone told ABC Radio National’s PM program that it was good news that Australians were living longer and that cancer survival rates were increasing, but lamented that around half of Australians had a chronic disease that was mainly caused by lifestyle choices.

“We still need to ensure the lifestyle prescription is the cornerstone of good preventative health care,” Dr Bartone said.

“Good preventative care is worth exceedingly more than the cost of the consultation, in terms of improved outcomes.

“Thirty-one per cent of the burden could have been prevented by reducing risk factors such as smoking or excess weight, and that’s a significant amount of suffering, morbidity, and of course health care.”

In 2013-14, $2.2 billion or 1.4 per cent of total health expenditure went to public health activities, which included prevention and health promotion. This proportion has fallen from 2.2 per cent in 2007-08.

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon recently urged the Government to invest in preventive health measures to improve the health and wellbeing of all Australians.

“The lack of investment, coupled with the freeze on Medicare patient rebates and cuts to bulk billing incentives for pathology tests and x-rays, is affecting GPs’ ability to provide primary health care,” Dr Gannon said

“Preventive health is not only an investment in the health of our nation, it is an investment in Australia’s economic productivity.

“When risk factors for chronic diseases and conditions are detected early and addressed, it reduces the need for more expensive hospital admissions.

“Australia spends significantly less on prevention and public health than comparable countries including New Zealand, Finland, and Canada.

“With the exception of tobacco control, there has been little or no progress against the national targets for preventing and controlling risk factors for chronic disease.”

The AMA calls on the Government to commit to:

  • fund prevention and early intervention as a sound and fiscally responsible investment in Australia’s health system;
  • increase investment to properly resource evidence-based approaches to preventive health; and
  • deliver sustainable funding for non-government organisations (NGOs) that advocate, educate and provide services to those affected by chronic diseases and health problems, including alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, blood-borne viruses, aged care, mental health and public health awareness.

The AIHW report is available at http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=60129555544

Kirsty Waterford