Australians getting fatter but living longer and smoking less

Experts formulating a report on Australia’s health related figures say that Australian men and women are living longer than ever thanks to a drop in deaths from notorious diseases and cancer, but the rising weight has left the door open to a host of new health problems. The key finding of a major study released today was that excess weight carried by one in four children and more than 60 per cent of adults was contributing to an increase in chronic diseases across the country.

The report, Key Indicators of Progress for Chronic Disease and Associated Determinants, presented 42 indicators related to chronic diseases. It noted that overall life expectancy had increased by 3.5 years for men and 2.3 years for women since 1995-1997. This meant that boys and girls born in 2006-2008 were expected to live to 79.2 and 83.7 years old respectively. The report also found that less than 18 per cent of Australian adults smoked daily, compared with more than 24 per cent in 1991. On the other hand almost one-quarter of children and 60 per cent of adults were either overweight or obese, and this number was only increasing.

Ilona Brockway of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s population health unit said chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and mental disorders were usually long-lasting, persistent and may be associated with disability. Collectively, they were a major burden on those who suffered from them, their carers and the broader community, and this burden was increasing, she said. “The indicators show good news in terms of premature deaths related to chronic disease – that is, deaths in people aged below 75 years – with the rate of these deaths falling by 17 per cent between 1997 and 2007,” she said.

According to the report, deaths from cardiovascular disease and respiratory illnesses had also decreased significantly in the past decade. There was a decrease in deaths due to lung, breast, prostate and bowel cancers attributed to better treatments, more screening and a decrease in risk factors such as smoking. But deaths from liver cancer appeared to be on the rise, most likely because of increases in incidence of liver cirrhosis - often attributed to excess alcohol consumption - and of hepatitis B and C, according to the report.

Mrs Brockway said, “Excess weight is associated with many chronic conditions, so the increase shown in these statistics is of concern. Adopting healthier behaviours is the key to preventing chronic disease. These indicators will help keep an eye on what’s working in chronic disease prevention.”

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

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