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There are many positive things to say about the health of Australians. We generally have good health, our health is improving on many fronts, and it compares well with other countries. There has been a great deal of progress over the past century.

However, there are serious areas of concern that need to be tackled and there are things we can do to improve our health. Those aspects will be covered in later sections. This section presents some examples of the good news.

Heart, stroke deaths are down

As a group, cardiovascular disease (also known as CVD) includes heart attack, stroke and other heart and blood vessel diseases. This type of disease is Australia’s biggest killer, accounting for 33% of all deaths in 2009. Further, many people are at risk because of high blood pressure and blood cholesterol, and lifestyle habits such as smoking, low levels of exercise and poor diet.

However, the good news is that we have seen spectacular declines in deaths from CVD. There has been a 78% fall since 1968 and the rate is now much lower than it was 100 years ago. Much of this decline comes from improvements in the prevention, detection and management of CVD over the past 60 years.

If the rate had remained at its 1968 peak, 202,400 people would have died from CVD in 2009 instead of the 46,100 who did. This represents a saving of more than 156,000 lives in 2009 alone. By way of comparison, there were 141,000 deaths from all causes in 2009.

Cardiovascular deaths: trends

Line graph showing the rate of cardiovascular deaths (per 100,000) for males and females since 1907. The general trend shows a steady decline in recent years, with fewer cardiovascular-related deaths in 2009 than in 1907, for both males and females.

Find out more: ‘Section 6.2 Cardiovascular disease’ in Australia’s health 2012

Surviving a heart attack is more likely

Compared with previous years, people who have heart attacks have a better chance of surviving.

For those aged 40–90 who had a heart attack in 2009, 63% survived, compared with 47% in 1997. Part of this trend, however, may be due to an increase in the diagnosis of milder heart attacks, as tests have become increasingly sensitive over time.

Survival rates are generally similar for males and females, although males are more than twice as likely as females to have a heart attack.

Survival after heart attack: trends

Line graph shows survival rates after heart attack have increased over time, for males and females aged 40-90 years. Survival rates are similar for males and females - 63% of those who had a heart attack in 2009 survived, compared to 47% in 1997.

Find out more: ‘Section 6.2 Cardiovascular disease’ in Australia’s health 2012

Cancer deaths down, survival rates up

Cancer is a major cause of death in Australia, accounting for 29% of all deaths recorded in 2009. While the actual number of deaths from cancer continues to increase due to people living longer and population growth, the death rate (the number of deaths per 100,000 population) is falling. Between 1989 and 2009, the overall cancer death rate fell by 23% for males and 17% for females.

The prospect of survival for people diagnosed with cancer has improved. From 2006 to 2010, people diagnosed with cancer had a 66% chance of living for 5 or more years after diagnosis. Further, survival from cancer in Australia is generally high compared with most other countries.

Cancer deaths: trends

Line graph showing death rates from cancer for males and females over time. Between 1989 and 2009, the overall cancer death rate fell by 23% for males and 17% for females.

Find out more: ‘Section 6.1 Cancer’ in Australia’s health 2012

Cigarettes burning out

Tobacco smoking is the single most preventable cause of ill health and death in Australia. It contributes to more hospitalisations and deaths each year than alcohol and illicit drug use combined.

Rates of smoking have been falling for decades in Australia. Overall, 15% of Australians aged 14 or older now smoke daily, compared with 30% in 1985. This figure is expected to further decline, given the decreasing proportion of younger people smoking daily and the increasing proportion who have never smoked.

However, certain population groups are at greater risk. Those more likely than average to smoke include people who are unable to work or are unemployed, those identifying as homosexual or bisexual, people living in remote areas, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Daily smoking among people aged 14 or older: trends

Line graph shows percentage of people aged 14 or older who smoke daily has decreased over time. Over 30% of males smoked daily in 1985, and this decreased to less than 20% in 2010. Around 25% of females were daily smokers in 1985, compared with 15% in 2010.

Find out more: ‘Section 5.8 Tobacco smoking’ in Australia’s health 2012

Breathing easier

Another major disease to show a fall in death rates is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and is characterised by frequent coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath.

The fall in death rates began much earlier for males but also started from a much higher level than for females. This is probably because male smoking rates had been much higher than those of females but started to decline in the 1960s, as opposed to the late 1970s for females.

The gap between male and female death rates from COPD has narrowed substantially over the past 40 years.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease deaths: trends

Line graph shows the death rate from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease has declined between 1969 and 2009, and the gap between rates for males and females has narrowed substantially. Death rates from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease were higher for males – with around 80 deaths per 100,000 in 1969, compared to just over 10 for females. By 2009, the male rate had dropped to to around 30 deaths per 100,000, compared to 17 for females.

Find out more: ‘Section 6.4 Chronic respiratory conditions’ in Australia’s health 2012