Australian Health Report Reveals Mental Health and Addiction Surge as Second Leading Causes of Illness and Premature Death

A recent report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has shed light on the state of public health in Australia. The findings reveal that while cancer remains the leading cause of illness and premature death in the country, mental health conditions and substance use disorders have emerged as the second-largest group of diseases contributing to the burden of illness and early mortality among Australians. This shift in the disease landscape marks a significant development, surpassing other health issues such as musculoskeletal disorders and cardiovascular diseases.

The study conducted by AIHW, known as the Australian Burden of Disease Study 2023, aims to quantify the number of years of healthy life lost by Australians due to injuries, diseases, or premature death. This assessment utilizes a metric called Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALY) to gauge the impact of living with poor health (non-fatal disease burden) and the consequences of passing away prematurely (fatal disease burden).

In 2023, Australians collectively lost an estimated 5.6 million years of healthy life. This loss is divided into two categories: 54% due to living with various diseases and 46% because of untimely deaths. The report also highlights an 11% reduction in the overall rate of disease burden between 2003 and 2023, primarily driven by a significant 27% drop in the rate of fatal disease burden. However, this decrease has been partially offset by a 6.3% increase in non-fatal disease burden.

While Australians are living longer on average and experiencing more years of good health, there has also been a rise in the number of years spent grappling with poor health. This trend contributes to the continued strain on the healthcare system and other essential services.

Cancer continues to be the leading cause of disease burden, accounting for 17% of the total in 2023. Alarmingly, 91.4% of this cancer burden results in fatality. The report introduces new data indicating that mental health conditions and substance use disorders now represent the second-largest group of diseases causing both total burden (15%) and non-fatal burden (26%) in 2023. Within this category, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and bipolar disorder collectively account for more than half of the disease burden. Additionally, alcohol and substance use disorders contribute to another 14% of the burden. Notably, the burden of anxiety disorders has risen by 33% from 2003 to 2023.

Aside from cancer and mental health issues, musculoskeletal conditions (13%), cardiovascular diseases (12%), and neurological conditions (8%) remain significant contributors to the overall disease burden in 2023. Mental health problems and addiction are particularly prevalent among Australians aged 5 to 44, while musculoskeletal conditions, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer become more prominent in those aged 45 and older.

The five leading individual causes of disease burden in 2023 are coronary heart disease (5.4%), dementia (4.4%), back pain and problems (4.3%), anxiety disorders (3.9%), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (3.6%). Surprisingly, COVID-19 ranks 30th among the specific diseases causing burden in 2023, accounting for 0.9% of the total burden, with the majority being fatal (83%).

Overall, males experience a higher total burden than females, primarily due to their higher rates of fatal burden. Moreover, the leading causes of burden differ between genders. In 2023, the leading causes of total burden among males include coronary heart disease, back pain and problems, suicide, and self-inflicted injuries. In contrast, among females, dementia takes the top spot, followed by anxiety disorders and back pain and problems.

The AIHW’s comprehensive study offers invaluable insights into the impact of illnesses, injuries, and premature deaths in Australia. This information is critical for monitoring public health trends and shaping healthcare policies and services. On December 15, 2022, the Australian Bureau of Statistics will release further health-related data, providing a more comprehensive picture of the nation’s health status.