Dying in Australia a complicated tale

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A new report shows many Australians die from multiple underlying causes. | Photo: Image Depot Pro (iStock)

Almost a quarter of deaths in Australia are caused by more than five underlying conditions, according to a recent report.

The latest What do Australian’s die from report, compiled by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare highlights the most common causes involved in the 191,000 registered deaths in Australia in 2022.

AIHW spokesperson Michelle Gourley said understanding what Australians died from was complex and the answer could vary depending on how the conditions involved were assessed.

Ms Gourley said the AIHW report used all health conditions recorded on a death certificate to provide an insight into the health conditions causing and contributing to a person’s death.

“Traditionally, statistics about how people die are based primarily on the initiating or ‘underlying’ cause of death, but death certificates also contain other information that can be useful in understanding why a death occurred.”

Ms Gourley said the report showed that four in five deaths involved more than one cause and almost one-quarter of deaths had five or more causes recorded.

She said while Coronary heart disease (CHD) was the most common underlying cause of death of Australians in 2022 (responsible for one in 10 deaths), it was involved in many more deaths (one in five) when considering all of the information included on the death certificates.

“Dementia (18 percent), hypertension (12 percent), cerebrovascular diseases and diabetes (both 11 percent) were other common conditions involved in deaths.”

Ms Gourley said the most common conditions contributing to death typically reflected chronic diseases and risk factor-related health conditions.

She said substance use disorders such as alcohol (2 percent), tobacco (1.3 percent) and other drugs (1.6 percent) were more common contributory conditions for males, while dementia (7 percent) and musculoskeletal conditions, such as osteoporosis (1.9 percent) and osteoarthritis (1.5 percent) were more common contributory conditions for females.

“The most common direct causes of death, those that ultimately end a person’s life, were lower respiratory infections (8 percent), cardiac/respiratory arrest (7 percent) and sepsis (6 percent),” she said.

The report showed that what Australians died from varied greatly by age.

Ms Gourley said for people aged 15 to 54, external causes such as suicide, road traffic injuries and accidental poisoning were common underlying causes of death, with the associated complications from these causes, e.g. asphyxiation, toxic effect of substances and drugs, reflected in common direct causes of death.

“For those aged 55 and over, chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, dementia and cancer were common underlying causes of death.”

She said direct causes of death in that age group reflected complications of these chronic diseases, such as infections, cardiac arrest, and respiratory failure, and other conditions experienced in the end stages of life, such as frailty.

“Using different ways of looking at causes of death can enhance our understanding of the roles played by different diseases and conditions in a person’s health and in their death,” Ms Gourley said.

“This can lead to a better awareness of what health conditions have the biggest impact on the community and can aid health services and decision makers in relation to developing strategies and interventions to reduce the impact of diseases and promote better health.”

Learn more about Australian life expectancy and death.