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Paradise delayed: longer life but worsening health

By Peter Curson - posted Thursday, 13 October 2016

It is no secret that Australia's population is ageing and that we are all living longer. But, what is not always recognised is that the price we have paid for this has been worsening health. Despite the widespread belief that our health is good the reality is that Australians are generally a relatively unhealthy lot and the evidence suggests that our health continues to worsen with age.

Today, 15% or 3.5 million Australians are aged over 65 and within the next 20 years this will grow to 6.5 million. By the year 2050 more than 26% of our population will be aged over 65 and over the next 25-30 years the fastest growing sector of the population will be those aged over 80. The numbers aged over 80 will most probably double over the next 20 years and by 2050 there will be more than 2.5 million old old Australians.

At present, roughly 75% of all elderly Australians are suffering from some form of chronic condition. There are also high levels of disability and handicap among the non-aged sector of the population. Today, by the age of 65 approximately 5 out of every 10 Australians suffer from a disability of some sort and by the age of 80 roughly 8 out of 10. As our population continues to age so too will levels of chronic illness and disability continue to increase.


Today approximately 3.7 million Australians suffer from cardiovascular disease, 2.3 million from asthma, 3.3 million from arthritis, 500,000 struggle with some form cancer and 80% of us will suffer from back pain at some stage in our life. In addition, 45% of all Australians will experience a mental disorder at some stage of their life. By the age of 85, 1 in every 2 Australian males will have some form of cancer as will 1 in 3 females.

On top of this at present there are an estimated 342,000 Australians suffering from dementia and this number will probably increase to more than 900,000 over the next 15 years. Add all this to the fact that just under half of all Australians aged between 18 and 65 are inactive or poorly active and a large proportion overweight or obese, and you have some idea of what sort of future is staring us in the face.

Obesity is a particular problem.

Australia has the 5th highest rate of obesity for people aged over 15 in the world. But it is not just adult or older Australians who suffer from being overweight or obese. Today roughly 1 in 4 of children aged between 5 and 14 years are overweight or obese as are 1.1 million Australians aged between 15 and 24. It is a disturbing scenario for the future.

And is it simply a matter of chronic disease or obesity that is etching away at our health? What about infectious disease does that play any part? Most people believe that apart from the odd mosquito-borne infection like Zika, encountered on trips abroad, infectious disease has little impact upon their lives.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether it be minor episodes of gastrointestinal upset or the common cold, most of us a lucky to survive a year without an infectious disease encounter.


Perhaps as many as 5 million Australians suffer from a bad cold every year with 100,000 suffering from more severe influenza. But the impact of infectious disease upon our lives is much more than this. Food- borne bacterial Infections such as salmonella and campylobacter remain high as does sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia and gonococcal disease.

Together these last two bacterial infections produce around 100,000 cases each year. And the list goes on.

What about mosquito-borne viral infections such as Barmah Forest Virus, Ross River Virus, Q Fever and Dengue? In 2015 there were more than 628 cases of Barmah Forest Virus officially notified as well as 1713 cases of Dengue, 9553 cases of Ross River Virus and 605 cases of Q Fever. So far there exists no specific vaccine or medical treatment for such infections and we simply treat the symptoms.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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