Aussie life expectancy drops

For the first time since the mid-1990s, life expectancy in Australia has decreased.

Average longevity fell by 0.1 years for males in 2020-2022 and in females from 2019–2021, according to the latest biannual report by the AIHW, Australia’s Health: 2024 

This was likely due to the increase in deaths seen in 2022, of which close to half were due to COVID, and for the first time in over 50 years the pandemic resulted in an infectious disease making the top 5 causes of death. 

The ABS developed estimates of excess mortality which provided an indication of additional deaths that have occurred since the beginning of the pandemic, revealing that as of December 2023, there was a total of 13,259 excess deaths in Australia — reflected in the small decline in life expectancy observed for Australia from in 2020-2022. 

In 2020 there were 1,854 less deaths than expected, but in 2021, 2022, and 2023 there were more deaths than expected, with 369, 11,558 and 3,186, respectively.  

However, since the beginning of the pandemic, overall Australia has had one of the lowest excess mortality rates compared with other countries with available data, resulting in the fourth highest outlook for life expectancy among 38 OECD countries in 2024. 

A boy and girl born in 2020–2022 can expect to live on average to: 81.2 years and 85.3 years respectively – an increase of around 40% since the start of the 20th century. 

The leading causes of death in 2022 were: 

  1. Coronary heart disease – even though coronary heart disease has fallen by more than 80% since 1980, there was a slight increase during the pandemic between 2021 and 2022.  
  1. Dementia – the AIHW estimates there were 411,100, or 15 per 1,000, Australians living with dementia in 2023; nearly two-thirds (63%) were women. With an ageing and growing population, AIHW predicts that the number of Australians with dementia will more than double by 2058 to 849,300 people. 
  1. COVID – since the start of the pandemic to 29 February 2024, more than 22,000 people in Australia have died from or with COVID, and the virus was identified as the underlying cause of death for 79%. 
  1. Cerebrovascular disease – in 2022, two in three (66%) Australian adults aged 18 and over were living with obesity; an increase of 10% since 1995. 
  1. Lung cancer – 8.3% of people aged 14 and over smoked daily in 2022–‍2023, compared with 12.2% in 2016. The proportion of people aged 14 and over drinking alcohol in ways that put their health at risk has fallen too, from 39% in 2004 to 31% in 2022–23.  

AIHW Deputy Chief Executive Officer Matthew James said the good news was a decline in some behaviours and risk factors which negatively impacted health. 

“More people are also physically active, with fewer not meeting physical activity guidelines compared with five years ago,” he said. “Only 37% of adults aged 18-64 did not meet the physical activity guideline in 2022, a decrease from 51% in 2017-18.” 

Cancer survival rates have also improved, with seven in 10 patients surviving at least five years after a diagnosis, a 32% reduction in deaths over the last 30 years. More than 40% of the total cancer burden was attributable to personal and behavioural risk factors such as smoking, alcohol use, overweight and obesity, insufficient physical activity and UV exposure.