Media releases

July 16, 2014

Australian obesity causing diabetes crisis

Diabetes levels have doubled since 1990

The number of self-reported rates of diabetes has more than doubled since 1990, from 1.5% to 4.2% of Australians, with over 1 million people now diagnosed with the illness (i). Given the disease often goes dangerously undiagnosed, this figure may just the tip of the iceberg.

The increase is due to higher rates of obesity, with two thirds of the Australian population now identified as overweight or obese (ii), which is a key contributor to the development of type 2 diabetes,

The death rate for diabetes has also risen in Australia, from 19 to 21 deaths per 100,000 between 1990 and 2009 (iii). This is due to a combination of the disease being more prevalent whilst diagnosis remains low.

Medibank data reveals more men were identified with diabetes than women, particularly the age group 65-69. This may be because rates of obesity are higher in men than women (iv), and age and a sedentary lifestyle are risk factors for type 2 diabetes. However, the number of children being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes is also on the increase. Childhood obesity levels in Australia have doubled in recent years, with one in four now classed as obese (v). An impact of this is the increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

According to Medibank data, more members were identified with diabetes in Victoria, where 3.5% of the state's Medibank members have presented at hospital with diabetic-related illnesses in the last year. South Australia and Tasmania followed closely behind, with 3.4% and 3.3% respectively.

Of members identified with diabetes, the distribution across metro, rural and regional areas was the same for type 1 and type 2. 65% of those identified with type 1 or type 2 were in metro areas, 15% in regional, 22% in rural. However, it must be noted that Medibank has a higher membership base in metro areas than regional and rural, which will have influenced the data.

Diabetes can lead to an individual developing multiple health problems, such as heart disease, kidney disease and blindness. Of members Medibank has identified with diabetes, 73% visited hospital at least once in 2013 with a health problem. Members in Tasmania were most likely to go to hospital (83%), followed by Queenslanders (82%). The average length of stay in hospital was four days. The top three illnesses members presented at hospital with were endocrinology (diabetic or thyroid related illnesses), vascular surgery (of the arteries or veins) and ophthalmology (diseases of the eye).

Dr Ian Boyd, Medibank Chief Medical Officer, said that diabetes often goes undetected because people can ignore the symptoms and it can become difficult to diagnose.

"The symptoms of diabetes are quite generic and can often be attributed to other health or environmental factors. They include excessive thirst, tiredness, weight change and headaches. As a result, diabetes can go undetected for quite a long time, which can lead to fatal consequences. Although there is no known cure for diabetes, it can be managed through diet, exercise and possibly medication including tablets and insulin injections.

"Although type 1 diabetes is hereditary, type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle disease and can be avoided. A healthy diet, regular exercise and avoiding smoking are key to both preventing the onset of type 2 diabetes and managing its consequences.

"Given the increase in childhood type 2 diabetes, it's important that children are encouraged to eat healthy foods, get plenty of physical activity and maintain a healthy weight. These simple steps can avoid a whole host of health problems in the future."

i. Australia's Health 2014, AIHW 2014
ii. Australia's Health 2014, AIHW 2014
iii. Australia's Health 2014, AIHW 2014
iv. Australia: the healthiest country by 2020 - Australian Government's Preventative Health Taskforce, 2009
v. Australia: the healthiest country by 2020 - Australian Government's Preventative Health Taskforce, 2009


About the data:
The information is based on Medibank data collated from members with diabetes who were admitted to hospital from 2009 to 2013. It only includes admissions where members were identified as being diagnosed with diabetes during their hospital experience, whether that was their principal or secondary reason for being admitted. It does not include data from members who presented at public hospitals.

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