What are the main causes of death in Australia?

COVID-19 took its toll on Australians in 2020, responsible for many hundreds of deaths, but it wasn’t among the top killers of the year. Despite the pandemic outbreak, there was actually a decline in the number of people who died during the year compared to the previous year.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics examined the causes of deaths registered in Australia in 2020. It found the total number of deaths that year was 161,300, down 8,001 (-4.7%) on the year before. Of those deaths, 84,588 (52.4%) were male and 76,712 (47.6%) were female.

The ABS said there were 898 deaths due to COVID-19 recorded through the civil registration system, making it the 38th leading cause of death in 2020. By comparison, it said there were 55 deaths due to the flu in 2020 compared to 1,080 in 2019.

The top five causes of death

The top five causes accounted for 56,191, or about one in three of all registered deaths in 2020. All are related to our health.

  1. Ischaemic heart diseases
  2. Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease
  3. Cerebrovascular diseases (e.g. stroke)
  4. Lung cancer
  5. Chronic lower respiratory diseases

Causes of death in Australia 2020

Cause 1: Ischaemic heart disease

Ischaemic heart disease was the leading single cause of deaths in Australia, responsible for 16,587 deaths in 2020, about one in 10 of total deaths that year.

Males were more prone to the disease, accounting for 10,040 (60.5%) of the deaths compared to 6,547 (39.5%) for females.

The ABS calculates the median average age of death for each condition. This figure is the middle value between the youngest and oldest recorded ages of death.

The median age for death due to ischaemic heart disease in 2020 was 84.1.

The condition, also known as coronary heart disease, affects the supply of blood to the heart, and has long been Australia’s number one killer, even though rates have declined in recent years.

For example, in 2011, 21,526 people died from this particular type of heart disease, but the number fell to 19,911 in 2015.

The Heart Foundation of Australia says those most affected by heart disease in general include people from lower socioeconomic groups, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those living in remote areas.

Most people don’t know they have heart disease until they have a heart attack or some other condition brought on by the disease.

A family history of heart disease is one potential risk factor. Others include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Being overweight or obese
  • An unhealthy diet
  • Being physically inactive

The Foundation says on average, a person is hospitalised with a form of heart disease every 80 seconds in Australia, and a person dies every 18 minutes.

Private health cover for the ‘heart and vascular system’ treatment category is mandatory on Gold and Silver hospital policies, and it may be offered as a restricted benefit on some Bronze and Basic policies.

Cause 2: Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease

Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, claimed 14,575 lives in 2020, an increase of 4,711 since 2011 but down 441 on the 15,016 deaths in 2019.

It was the leading single cause of death for females, accounting for 9,325 (64.0%) lives lost in 2020, compared to 5,250 (36.0%) for males.

Dementia Australia says dementia is a collection of symptoms caused by disorders affecting the brain, not one specific disease.

Common symptoms include frequent memory loss, confusion, personality change, apathy and withdrawal, and a loss of ability to perform everyday tasks.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for about 70% of all cases.

The disease can be either sporadic, which can affect adults at any age though usually occurs after age 65, or familial due to a very rare genetic condition, caused by a mutation in one of several genes. In the latter case, a person will usually develop Alzheimer's disease in their 40s or 50s.

In 2020, the median age of death from dementia was 89.1.

Cause 3: Cerebrovascular diseases (e.g. stroke)

Cerebrovascular diseases refers to conditions involving blood flow to the brain, such as a stroke, and they accounted for 9,470 deaths in 2020. They were responsible for more deaths among females, at 5,496 (58.0%), than males at 3,974 (42.0%).

The median age of deaths from cerebrovascular diseases was 86.1 in 2020.

There was a decrease in the number of deaths from these conditions, down 421 on the 2019 figure and down 1,775 on 2011.

The Stroke Foundation says a stroke happens when blood cannot get to your brain, because of a blocked or burst artery. This can cause brain cells to die because of a lack of oxygen.

Despite cerebrovascular diseases being the number three killer in Australia, the Foundation says more than 80% of strokes can be prevented, as some of the most common risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking.

Cause 4: Lung and throat cancers

Lung and throat cancers were the fourth-biggest killers in 2020, accounting for 8,457 deaths. The disease was more prominent in males, responsible for 4,751 (56.2%) deaths compared to 3,706 (43.8%) deaths of females.

The median age of death was the youngest of the top five, at 74.5.

Deaths from such cancers have been on the rise over the past decade but the 2020 figure was down 364 on the previous year.

The reason cancer in general is not listed as Australia’s biggest killer is because the ABS records deaths across a range of different cancers such as breast, colon, lung, pancreas, prostate, skin and so on.

The Cancer Council says cancer was responsible for just under 50,000 total deaths in 2020.

It adds that smoking is the biggest preventable cause of cancer and accounts for about 13% of cancer cases each year. It also says two out of three deaths in current long-term smokers can be directly attributed to smoking.

Private health insurance cover for cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and immunotherapy is a minimum requirement of Bronze, Silver and Gold hospital policies, and may be offered as a restricted benefit on Basic policies.

Cause 5: Chronic lower respiratory diseases

Chronic lower respiratory diseases were responsible for 7,102 deaths in 2020, with 3,706 (52.2%) among males and 3,396 (47.8%) in females.

The median age of death was 80.4.

The ABS includes deaths from bronchitis, emphysema and asthma in these figures.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) says chronic respiratory conditions affect the airways, including the lungs and passages that transfer air from the mouth and nose into the lungs. They can cause symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and cough.

While some risk factors may be genetic and can’t be changed, the AIHW says other risks can, such as smoking, poor nutrition, being overweight or obese and leading a sedentary lifestyle.

The latest national smoking statistics from the ABS show 13.8% of adults (just under one in seven) were smokers in 2017-18.

This figure has fallen from 23.8% in 1995 but has stayed relatively similar in recent years (it was 14.5% in 2014-15).

The ABS data also shows about two thirds (67.0%) of Australian adults were overweight or obese in 2017-18, an increase from 63.4% in 2014-15.

Australia is a land of deadly creatures, but do they really kill?

Despite Australia’s reputation as home to some of the world’s deadliest creatures and critters, the ABS registered relatively few deaths from contact with our wildlife

There were six deaths (all males) caused by venomous snakes and lizards, no deaths caused by spiders or scorpions and one death recorded from contact with hornets, wasps and bees.

There were eight deaths (again all males) from contact with marine animals, but none attributed to a crocodile in 2020. Taronga Conservation Society Australia’s Shark Attack File reports eight deaths in 2020, including one it lists as provoked.

Two people died after being bitten or struck by a dog.

But it’s our health that’s proving the most deadly thing to us. Diabetes claimed 5,148 lives and ranked 7th as leading cause of death in 2020. That’s an ABS ranking position the disease has held for several years.

Influenza and pneumonia dropped from 9th place in 2019 to 17th in 2020, responsible for 2,287 deaths. As mentioned earlier, only 55 of those deaths are attributed to the flu.

Accidental falls led to 3,395 deaths and ranked as the 11th as a leading cause of death in 2020, something that’s continued to climb over the years from 16th in 2015 and 17th in 2011.

How could your cause of death affect your life insurance policy?

Life insurance policies are generally designed to provide a benefit to a beneficiary you’ve named, such as your partner, if you die due to an unforeseen illness or accident.

But there may be certain causes of death that are listed as exclusions on your life insurance policy.

For example, on some policies may not cover death by suicide, or there may be an extended waiting period of a year or more after the policy is initially taken out during which suicide would not be covered.

Some life insurers may not provide cover for deaths caused by pre-existing medical conditions you were aware of but didn’t disclose when taking out the policy.

Make sure you read the product disclosure statement (PDS) and your certificate of insurance, and check with your insurer if you are not sure what limits or exclusions might apply to your cover.