What are the leading causes of death in Australia?

The leading causes of death in Australia have stayed relatively consistent over the years – here are the top five based on current Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data.

The ABS’s Causes of Death study, conducted in 2018, examined the causes of deaths registered in Australia that year, and then compares them to previous years. In 2018, 158,493 people died, with the top five causes of death accounting for 57,943 (36.5%) of the year’s deaths. Most of the deaths (82,320) were males, while 76,163 were females. 

The list below shows the five most common causes of death in Australia in 2018.

Cause #1: Ischaemic heart diseases

Ischaemic heart disease was the leading single cause of deaths in Australia in 2018.  It is a condition that affects the supply of blood to the heart, and has long been Australia’s number one killer, even with rates having declined, the ABS explains. In 2013, 19,778 people died from heart disease, but the number fell to 17,533 in 2018. According to The Heart Foundation, lower socioeconomic groups, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those living in remote areas are the most affected by heart disease.

Heart Research Australia suggests that risk factors for heart disease can include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Being inactive

Nearly three in four (73%) of Australians aged 30 to 65 years have been told they have at least one risk factor for heart disease , and over 400,000 Australians will have a heart attack at some point in their lives. If you’re concerned about your chances of suffering from heart disease, it could be worth checking if your private health insurance (if you have a policy in place) provides an appropriate level of cover for it. Cover for ‘heart and vascular system’ is mandatory on Gold and Silver hospital policies, and it may be offered as a restricted benefit on some Bronze policies. 

Cause #2: Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease

In 2018 dementia claimed 13,963 lives, an increase of 27.7% since 2013. Dementia was the leading cause of death for females, and the third-most prominent for males.

Dementia is a general term for severe disorders with mental decline, according to Dementia Australia. It says common symptoms include problems with memory, disorientation, trouble speaking, and confusion. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 50-75% of all cases.

It most commonly affects the elderly, with the median age of people dying due to dementia including Alzheimer’s disease being 89. Deaths from dementia including Alzheimer’s disease increased from 32.3 deaths per 100,000 in 2009 to 41.2 in 2018. The ABS predicts that if current trends continue dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, will become the leading cause of death in the coming years. 

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

Accounting for 9,972 deaths in 2018, cerebrovascular diseases were third on the list of leading causes of death. Cerebrovascular diseases are conditions caused by problems that affect the blood supply to the brain, the most common of which is stroke. According to the Stroke Foundation, stroke is a serious medical condition which results in the death of brain cells due to a lack of blood supply, leading to impaired movement and speech.

Deaths due to cerebrovascular disease were more common amongst females, and the median age of stroke victims in 2018 was 86.2. Deaths caused by cerebrovascular diseases are on the decline, having fallen from 44.9 deaths per 100,000 people in 2009 to 30.7 in 2018. 

Cause #4: Lung and throat cancers

Lung and throat cancers (or malignant neoplasm of trachea, bronchus and lungs as they are described by the ABS) were the fourth-biggest killers in 2018, accounting for 8,586 deaths – an increase from 8,215 in 2013. However, the rate of lung cancer mortality specifically is decreasing due to declining smoking rates, according to the Cancer Council. 

It might seem surprising for cancer to not be Australia’s number one killer, but the ABS statistics name various forms of cancer including lung , colon, prostate, pancreas, and breast, and treat them all as different causes of death. If you were to group all the cancers together and treat them as a single cause of death, it would be far and away the number one cause of death in Australia.

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 respiratory diseases

Killing 7,889 Australians in 2018, chronic lower respiratory diseases are fifth on the list of death causes. The Department of Health says that these are conditions that affect the lungs, the two biggest of which are asthma and bronchiectasis (permanent damage to the airways).

Chronic respiratory diseases such as these affect airways, the lungs, or the branches in the lungs that stimulate airflow, known as bronchi and bronchioles. To compensate for the fact that body tissues can’t be fuelled, the brain sends signals to increase our breathing rate which can cause breathlessness and coughing. Although this can occur naturally, lifestyle factors such as smoking can cause or exacerbate it, according to a review of the major issues in smoking and health in Australia, compiled by the Cancer Council Victoria.

The latest national smoking statistics from the ABS show that 13.8% of adults (just under one in seven) were smokers in 2017-18. While this figure has fallen from 24% in 1995, it has stayed relatively similar in recent years (14.5% in 2014-15). Smoking is a significant risk factor for respiratory disease, and reducing smoking rates is one of the Government’s main strategies for chronic respiratory disease prevention.

Causes of death among men versus women

While Australia’s leading causes of death have remained relatively consistent over the last ten years, they don’t all affect men and women evenly. When looking at the leading causes of death in 2018, women represented :

  • 64.3% of deaths due to dementia, including Alzheimers disease
  • 62.5% of deaths due to hypertensive diseases
  • 62.4% of deaths due to cardiac arrhythmias 
  • 58.2% of deaths due to cerebrovascular disease
  • 56.2% of deaths due to heart failure and complications and ill-defined heart disease
  • 54.9% of deaths due to diseases of the urinary system
  • 54% of deaths due to influenza and pneumonia 
  • 51.6% of deaths due to accidental falls 

Whereas men represented :

  • 76.2% of deaths due to intentional self-harm
  • 67.6% of deaths due to melanoma and other malignant neoplasms of skin
  • 67.2% of deaths due to malignant neoplasm of liver and intrahepatic bile ducts
  • 58.7% of deaths due to malignant neoplasms of lymphoid, hematopoietic and related tissue
  • 58.6% of deaths due to ischaemic heart diseases
  • 58.2% of deaths due to malignant neoplasm of trachea, bronchus and lung
  • 54.7% of deaths due to diabetes
  • 53.6% of deaths due to malignant neoplasm of colon, sigmoid, rectum and anus
  • 51.9% of deaths due to malignant neoplasm of pancreas
  • 51.3% of deaths due to chronic lower respiratory diseases

How could a person’s cause of death affect their life insurance policy?

Generally speaking, life insurance policies are designed to provide a benefit to an individual’s named beneficiary if they pass away due to an unforeseen illness or accident, although in some cases ‘accidental death cover’ is included as a separate policy. However, there may be certain causes of death that are listed as exclusions on a life insurance policy. For example, on some policies, death by suicide may not be covered, or there may be a en extended waiting period after the policy is initially taken out during which time suicide would not be covered.

In addition, some life insurers may not provide cover for deaths caused by pre-existing medical conditions that the policyholder was aware of. Consider reading the product disclosure document or checking with your insurer if you are unsure what limits or exclusions might apply to your cover.

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