What kills Australians?

Coronary heart disease was a factor in one in five deaths in Australians in 2022, according to new data.

A report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, which used all the information on medical death certificates, examined the most common causes involved in the 191,000 registered deaths in 2022. 

It provides new insights into the health conditions causing and contributing to a person’s death, highlighting the interplay of multiple diseases, with risk factors and psychosocial contexts involved in death also explored. 

“Understanding what Australians die from is complex and the answer can vary, depending on how we assess the conditions involved,” AIHW spokesperson Ms Michelle Gourley said.  

“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. 

“For example, while the underlying cause of death for a person might be coronary heart disease, the death certificate might also record the health condition that led directly to death, such as acute myocardial infarction (heart attack).  

“Other conditions that significantly contributed to the death such as hypertension, diabetes, alcohol use disorders, COVID and other contextual factors may also be recorded on the death certificate.” 

The report shows that four in five deaths involved more than one cause and almost one-quarter of deaths had five or more causes recorded. 

While 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 the information included on the death certificates.  

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

The most common conditions contributing to death typically reflect chronic diseases and risk factor-related health conditions and included hypertension (8%), diabetes (7%) and CHD (6%).  

Substance use disorders such as alcohol (2.0%), tobacco (1.3%) and other drugs (1.6%) were more common contributory conditions for males, while dementia (7%) and musculoskeletal conditions such as osteoporosis (1.9%) and osteoarthritis (1.5%) 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%), cardiac/respiratory arrest (7%) and sepsis (6%). 

What Australians die from also varied greatly by age. For people aged 15-54, external causes such as suicide, road traffic injuries and accidental poisoning were common underlying causes of death, and the associated complications from these causes (e.g. asphyxiation, toxic effect of substances and drugs) were reflected in common direct causes of death.  

Substance use disorders, depressive disorders, and psychosocial factors (such as history of self-harm, intimate partner issues and support system factors) featured prominently as common conditions contributing to deaths at these ages. 

For those aged 55 and over, chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, cancer, dementia, diabetes, hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) were common conditions contributing to mortality, with the direct cause of death reflecting complications (such as infections, cardiac arrest, and respiratory failure) associated with these illnesses.