Australians getting drunker, fatter, but among the world's longest-lived

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) conference, held in Canberra, Australia, received mixed messages on Tuesday about the health of Australians. While average life expectancy is 81.4 years, second only to Japan's 82.2, and rates of cancer, heart disease and stroke are dropping, incidence of obesity, alcohol-related diseases, and sexually transmitted infections are on the increase.

The AIHW report highlighted the increasing gap between Australia's Indigenous population and the rest of the nation. Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have a life expectancy around 17 years lower than the general populace, and in at least four states 71% of Aboriginals who died were under 65-years old, compared with 21% for the rest of the population. Indigenous Australians are reported to have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, respiratory illness, teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. People living in rural and regional areas were also found to have lower life expectancies and higher illness rates than their suburban and metropolitan counterparts.

While obesity is a growing concern in Australia, AIHW director Penny Allbon expressed skepticism over a recent report from the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute that claimed that Australia had overtaken the United States as the "fattest" nation in the world, with "over four million adult Australians [...] currently obese". Allben commented that the institute's sample from 100 locations across the country may not be representative of the whole population. "At the moment the ABS [Australian Bureau of Statistics] is out there measuring height and weight in a population-based survey, so we don't know the results," Dr Allbon said. "We were just a bit concerned that the statistics that came out about us being the fattest in the world is not based on a population survey." AIHW reported the number of Australians being obese as closer to 2.5 million, with 7.4 million being overweight.

Between 1997 and 2005, the number of general practitioners in Australia has dropped 9%, although in regional areas there has been an increase of 15%.

Based on the report, the AIHW has recommended that Australians consider lifestyle change, such as healthier eating and more exercise, to alleviate the pressure on Australia's public health system. "In rank order, the greatest improvements can be achieved through reductions in tobacco smoking, high blood pressure, overweight/obesity, physical inactivity, high blood cholesterol and excessive alcohol consumption," according to Dr. Allbon.