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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1997  
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Contents >> Health >> Health Status: Health of the population

Health Status: Health of the population

Despite around 91% of people aged 15 and over reporting some recent illness or long-term health conditions, 83% assessed their health as good, very good or excellent.

Health is a crucial component of an individual's overall social well-being. Health can be seen as a positive state of both physical and mental well-being. It is sometimes measured as such, using indicators which cover the positive aspect. These indicators include self-assessed health status. However, the health of individuals and groups is also reflected, and more often measured, in terms of ill health and ultimately mortality. For society illness and disease represent a major expense through lost productivity and the costs of treatment. For the individual, they affect one's ability to work, pursue leisure activities and participate fully in society.


Health status indicators

Self-assessed health status refers to the overall level of health reported by people aged 15 and over.

Recent illness conditions refer to conditions (illness, injury or disability) experienced in the two weeks prior to interview. They may include long-term conditions experienced in the period.

Long-term illness conditions refer to medical conditions which have lasted at least six months or which the respondent expects to last for six months or more.

Health actions during the two weeks prior to interview refer to activities related to a person's health such as visiting a doctor, taking medication, or changing daily routines in response to a health condition.


Cause of death
Of all statistics relating to health, mortality statistics are the most comprehensive and have been recorded over the longest time. Australian mortality rates are low by international standards and continue to fall. This decline is mainly due to advances in medical technology and the leading of healthier life styles through better diet, regular exercise and reductions in tobacco and alcohol consumption. Between 1985 and 1995 the standardised death rate fell from 816 deaths per 100,000 people to 646 deaths per 100,000 people. Declines were recorded for most leading causes of death. The most sizeable fall was in deaths from cardiovascular diseases. Ischaemic heart disease, stroke and arterial diseases each declined by over 30% in the ten-year period.

AGE-STANDARDISED(a) DEATH RATES

1985
1995


Males
Females
Total
Males
Females
Total
Leading cause of death
rate
rate
rate
rate
rate
rate

Cancer
246
145
186
232
139
178
Ischaemic heart disease
311
160
225
204
109
151
Stroke
97
91
95
68
60
63
Respiratory diseases
104
40
64
70
35
48
Accidents
51
21
36
35
15
25
Diseases of arteries and capillaries
29
18
23
21
11
15
Diabetes mellitus
15
12
13
17
12
14
Suicide
19
5
12
21
5
13
All deaths
1,059
633
816
826
505
646

(a) Standardised death rate per 100,000 of the 1991 population (see p. 42 for explanation of age standardisation).

Source: Causes of Death, Australia (cat. no. 3303.0 and unpublished data).


Self-assessed health status
A person's perception of their own general health status is considered a good measure of an individual's current physical and mental health, and a predictor of mortality of people aged 60 and over1.

In 1995, 83% of people aged 15 years and over reported that their health was good, very good or excellent. This proportion was similar for both men and women but declined with age. However, even among those aged 75 or more, over half (59%) reported their health as good, very good or excellent. Furthermore, despite around 91% of people aged 15 and over reporting some recent illness or long term health conditions, 83% assessed their health as good, very good or excellent.

Recent illness
In 1995, 70% of the population reported experiencing a recent illness. Many of these were minor ailments. Headaches were the most commonly reported specific recent condition, experienced by 11% of males and 15% of females. Other frequently reported illness conditions were arthritis (8.5%) and hypertension (8.3%).

The types of illness experienced varied by age. Colds were more prevalent among children and these rates declined with age. Headaches peaked within the 25-44 age group and then declined in older age groups. Conversely, arthritis and hypertension had very low prevalence rates up until the mid 40s but then increased rapidly with age. Despite their lower levels of mortality, women were more likely than men to experience a recent illness. While this partly reflects their older age profile, women also reported higher rates of illness than men in most age groups.

RECENT ILLNESS, 1995p

Males
Females
Total
Selected illness
%
%
%

Headache
10.8
15.4
13.1
Arthritis
6.7
10.2
8.5
Hypertension
7.2
9.3
8.3
Asthma
6.2
6.8
6.5
Common cold
5.3
5.9
5.6
Back problems
3.6
3.4
3.5
Influenza
3.1
3.1
3.1
Cough or sore throat
2.5
3.1
2.8
Hayfever
2.6
3.0
2.8
Total who experienced a recent illness(a)
65.7
73.8
69.7

(a) Includes people who suffered other illness conditions. People may report more than one illness, however they are only counted once in the total.

Source: 1995 National Health Survey: First Results (cat. no. 4392.0).


Long-term conditions
In 1995, 75% of people reported a long-term health condition. The majority of these people also reported a recent illness.

Sight disorders, (many of which are corrected by glasses), were the most frequently occurring long-term condition, affecting 47% of the population. If sight disorders were excluded, the proportion of people reporting long-term conditions would fall to 64%. The next most frequently reported conditions were arthritis, hay fever and asthma.

Many long-term health conditions are minor and are able to be managed so they do not impact greatly on the quality of life. This may explain why 81% of people aged 15 and over reporting a long-term health condition also assessed their overall level of health as good, very good or excellent.

As with recent illnesses, some long-term conditions such as sight problems and arthritis increased with age while asthma was more common among children.

Again women were more likely than men to report long-term conditions, although men were nearly twice as likely as women to have hearing problems. While the likelihood of hearing loss increased with age, the higher rates for men may have been a consequence of their working life and associated working conditions2.

LONG-TERM ILLNESS CONDITIONS, 1995p

Males
Females
Total
Selected conditions
%
%
%

Eye problems(a)
42.4
51.9
47.2
Arthritis
11.6
17.6
14.6
Hayfever
12.9
14.5
13.7
Asthma
10.7
11.4
11.1
Hypertension
9.5
10.9
10.2
Sinusitis
8.1
11.9
10.0
Ear or hearing problems
12.1
6.8
9.4
Allergy
4.6
6.7
5.7
Total reporting long-term conditions(b)
72.7
76.4
74.6

(a) Includes eye problems which can be corrected by glasses.
(b) Includes other long-term illness conditions. Components do not add to total as people may report more than one long-term illness condition.

Source: 1995 National Health Survey: First Results (cat. no. 4392.0 and unpublished data).


Health risk factors
A large number of life style and environmental factors are now recognised as increasing the risk of ill health. Some of the main risk factors include smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity and sun exposure.

Tobacco smoking has been described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the single greatest cause of disease in developed countries3. Health risks associated with smoking include cardiovascular disease, cancer, emphysema, bronchitis, stroke and thrombosis. In 1995, people who currently smoked were more than twice as likely to suffer from bronchitis or emphysema as those who had never smoked (8% compared to 3%).

Health risks associated with obesity include conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. In 1995, people who had an obese body mass index were nearly three times more likely to suffer from hypertension than those with a normal body mass index (29% compared to 10%). In addition, they were twice as likely to have high cholesterol as those with a normal body mass index (12% compared to 6%).

Participating in regular physical exercise and eating a balanced diet reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and other medical conditions such as osteoporosis and diabetes. Education on the benefits of regular exercise, eating a balanced diet and health risk factors has, in part, led to a decrease in mortality and the incidence of many diseases.

Between 1989-90 and 1995 the proportion of people aged 18 and over who smoked fell from 28% to 24% and the proportion of those consuming alcohol decreased from 63% to 56%. Also, in the same period, the proportion of people with an overweight or obese body mass fell from 37% to 32%. The extent of this may, however, be less than the frequencies indicate, as a greater proportion of people responding to the 1995 health survey did not state their body mass (4% in 1989-90, compared to 9% in 1995).

Between 1989-90 and 1995 the proportion of people aged 18 and over who exercised at a medium or high level increased from 32% to 37%, although the number of people who did no exercise also increased from 36% to 40%.

SELECTED HEALTH RISK FACTORS, PEOPLE AGED 18 YEARS AND OVER

1989-90
1995p
Health risk factors
%
%

Body mass
    Underweight
11.8
8.9
    Acceptable weight
48.2
50.0
    Overweight
27.8
23.7
    Obese
8.7
8.2
    Not stated
3.5
9.1
Smoker status
    Smoker
28.4
23.7
    Ex-smoker
23.2
27.4
    Never smoked
48.4
49.0
Alcohol risk level
    Did not consume alcohol
37.5
44.3
    Total who consumed alcohol
62.5
55.7
      Low
51.4
47.4
      Medium
6.8
5.1
      High
4.3
3.1
Exercise level
    Did not exercise
35.8
39.8
    Low exercise level
32.2
23.0
    Medium exercise level
16.6
17.3
    High exercise level
15.4
19.9

Source: 1995 National Health Survey: First Results (cat. no. 4392.0).


Health-related actions
When people are ill or have some underlying health condition they may take a range of actions including consulting doctors or other health professionals (such as chemists, opticians or chiropractors); and taking medication or time off work. Health actions can also be taken for preventative reasons such as regular dental check-ups.

In 1995, 75% of people took a recent health action in the two weeks prior to the interview. Almost 70% took some form of medication including 30% taking vitamins, minerals or other natural or herbal medicines, and 24% taking pain relievers. 23% of people consulted a doctor.

Older people were more likely than younger people to have taken a recent health action. This was especially the case when consulting a doctor or taking medication. 88% of people aged 55 and over took medication compared to 73% of those aged 35-54, 65% of those aged 15-34, and 51% of those aged 0-14.

Also, 35% of people aged 55 and over consulted a doctor compared to about 20% of those aged under 55.

Consistent with their higher rates of recent illness and long-term conditions women were more likely than men to visit the doctor or consult other health professionals as well as take medication.

HEALTH ACTIONS TAKEN, 1995p

Male
Female
Total
Selected actions
%
%
%

Used medication
63.5
74.1
68.8
    Vitamins/minerals(a)
24.5
34.9
29.8
    Other medications
54.2
64.0
59.1
Consulted doctor
20.4
26.1
23.3
Consulted dentist
5.3
5.9
5.6
Consulted other health professionals
8.4
11.5
9.9
Days off work/school
7.6
7.5
7.5
Other days of reduced activity
7.3
7.2
7.3
Total who took action(b)
70.3
80.1
75.3

(a) Includes herbal or natural medicine.
(b) Includes other health actions. Components do not add to total as people may undertake more than one type of action.

Source: 1995 National Health Survey: First Results (cat. no. 4392.0 and unpublished data).


Endnotes
1 McCallum, J. et al. 'Self-rated health and survival: a 7-year follow-up study of Australian elderly', American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 84, 1994, pp. 1100-5.

2 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1993, Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Hearing Impairment, cat. no. 4435.0, ABS, Canberra.

3 Department of Community Services and Health 1988, Health for All Australians: Report of the Health Targets and Implementation Committee to Australian Health Ministers, AGPS, Canberra.

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