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Chronic conditions: How Australians stack up

We look at which conditions are most prevalent and rising amongst Aussies

Australians have a lot to be proud of when it comes to health. The country’s average life expectancy is one of the highest in the world; far fewer people are smoking than twenty years ago; and overall alcohol consumption has fallen to its lowest level in 50 years. Pat on the back, Australia.

Yet despite this good news, there is still a lot that can be done to improve our overall health. This is especially true of chronic conditions — the leading cause of ill health and mortality in Australia — which accounted for 9 in every 10 Australian deaths in 2015. This far-reaching impact is reflected around the world, with chronic conditions taking the highest toll on human life globally.

Many of these conditions can be grouped into four major disease groups: cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) and diabetes. However more broadly, the term ‘chronic illness’ refers to a wide spectrum of conditions which are generally long-term, and often become more prevalent with age.

MORE: Is arthritis affecting your mental health?

What’s the status-quo on chronic conditions?

According to data from the Medibank Better Health Index (MBHI), the most common chronic conditions reported amongst Australians from 2017 – 2018 were arthritis, followed by mental health issues including depression and anxiety, and asthma.

Mental health issues continue to rise

While the prevalence of certain chronic conditions remain stable, rates of specific mental illnesses continue to soar. Anxiety has almost doubled over the past eight years, whilst those experiencing depression has increased by roughly 25%, according to MBHI data.

Two other conditions that are a rapidly growing health burden for Australia are type 2 diabetes and osteoarthritis. According to Diabetes Australia, at current rates, 280 Australians develop diabetes every day. That’s one person every five minutes. Separately, osteoarthritis is taking a firmer grip on the country’s aging population with roughly 9% of Australians living with the condition.

The factors driving these shifts

Chronic health issues such as diabetes and osteoarthritis are becoming increasingly common in Australia due to a population that is growing and ageing, as well as evolving lifestyle behaviours. Today, we may be less likely than our parents and grandparents to smoke, but we are more likely to be sedentary and spend more time in front of televisions or other electronic screens.

MORE: How can exercise help manage a chronic illness?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has distilled these shifting lifestyle trends into four modifiable behavioural risk factors, which include tobacco use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and the harmful consumption of alcohol. In addition to behavioural risk factors there are also metabolic risk factors that increase the risk of developing chronic illness, including raised blood pressure, obesity, high blood glucose levels, and hyperlipidemia (high levels of fat in the blood).

Looking at some of these factors in Australia specifically, government data shows the rate of smoking in Australia continues to decline, which is great news for our national health. However, the percentage of people falling into the ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ BMI category increased from 58.6% in 2008 to 62% in 2017. Echoing these findings, a previous government study reported a large proportion of the burden of disease experienced by the population could be prevented by reducing risk factors, such as obesity and physical inactivity.

MORE: CareComplete: support for chronic health conditions

Improving the lives of Aussies with a chronic condition

In order to lower your personal risk of developing a chronic illness, there are lots of habits you can incorporate into your everyday routine. Most importantly, cultivating and maintaining an active lifestyle with a healthy diet – rich in fresh vegetables and other nutrient-dense foods – is essential for long-term, optimal health. You can read Medibank’s tips on healthy habits here.

Read more about living with a chronic condition.

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