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Looking at how many people die and what caused their death can provide vital information about the health of a population. Examining patterns and trends in deaths can help explain differences and changes in the health of a population, contribute to the evaluation of health strategies and interventions, and guide planning and policy-making.
In 2021, there were approximately 171,469 deaths in Australia (89,401 males; 82,068 females). Less than 1% of all deaths registered in Australia in 2021 occurred among children aged 0–4 years, while over two-thirds (67%) were among people aged 75 and over.
Causes of death are documented on death certificates by medical practitioners or coroners and coded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) using the World Health Organization (WHO) International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th revision (ICD-10).
The ICD allows diseases that cause death to be grouped in a way that is meaningful for monitoring population health. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) uses the disease groups recommended by WHO (Becker et al. 2006) with minor modifications to suit the Australian context.
Leading causes of death presented on this page are based on the underlying cause of death, which is the disease or injury that began the train of events leading to death. The leading causes of death are those causes which account for the greatest number of deaths (or proportion of total deaths) in a specified population for a given period.
Most deaths, however, result from more than one contributing disease or condition. Analyses using associated causes of death may offer insight into the disease processes occurring at the end of life or for injury causes of death, the nature of the injury. Multiple causes of death statistics are based on both the underlying and associated causes of death.
See Technical notes for more information.
In 2021, the leading cause of death for males was coronary heart disease, accounting for 10,371 (12%) deaths, followed by dementia including Alzheimer’s disease (Figure 1). For females, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease was the leading cause of death, accounting for 10,276 (13%) deaths, followed by coronary heart disease. Other diseases among the 5 leading causes of deaths for males and females were: lung cancer, cerebrovascular disease (which includes stroke), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Figure 1: Leading underlying causes of death in Australia, by sex, 2021
Source: AIHW National Mortality Database; Table S3.1.
As well as differences by sex, the leading causes of death vary by age (Figure 2). Among infants, most deaths in 2021 were due to perinatal and congenital conditions. Land transport accidents were the most common cause of death among children aged 1–14. Suicide was the leading cause of death among people aged 15–44.
Chronic diseases caused more deaths among older age groups. Coronary heart disease and lung cancer were the leading causes of death for people aged 45–74, while coronary heart disease and dementia including Alzheimer’s disease were the leading causes for people aged 75 and over.
See Leading causes of death for more information.
Figure 2: Leading underlying causes of death in Australia, by age group, 2019–2021
- ‘Other ill-defined causes’ include the following codes: Symptoms, signs and abnormal clinical and laboratory findings, not elsewhere classified (ICD-10 codes R00–R99, excluding R95: Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)); Respiratory failure of newborn (P28.5); Respiratory failure, unspecified (J96.9). AIHW General Record of Incidence of Mortality (GRIM) books are available for selected leading causes of death.
- Heart failure refers to ‘Heart failure and complications and ill-defined heart disease (I50–I51)’.
- There were no suicide deaths in children under 5. The number of deaths of children attributed to suicide can be influenced by coronial reporting practices, see Deaths due to intentional self-harm (suicide): Coding of suicide in the Methodology of Causes of Death, Australia, ABS.
Source: AIHW National Mortality Database; Table S3.2.
In 2021, there were 1,122 deaths due to COVID-19 registered in Australia. The number of deaths due to COVID-19 in 2021 increased with increasing age and the majority (81%) of deaths occurred among people aged 65 and over. Almost all deaths due to COVID-19 occurred among people residing in New South Wales or Victoria (49.6% and 49.3% of all COVID-19 deaths in 2021, respectively). See COVID-19 deaths.
Males had a consistently higher number of COVID-19 deaths than females, and in some age groups the death rate for males was more than twice that of females (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Number of deaths and age-specific rates (per 100,000 population) in Australia due to COVID-19, by age and sex, 2021
Note: COVID-19 is coded to ICD-10 codes U07.1 (COVID-19, virus identified), U07.2 (COVID-19, virus not identified), U08.9 (Personal history of COVID-19, unspecified), U09, (Post COVID-19 condition, unspecified) or U10.9 (Multisystem inflammatory syndrome associated with COVID-19, unspecified). Only deaths where COVID-19 was the underlying cause of death are included. In 2021, they included codes U07.1 and U07.2.
Source: AIHW National Mortality Database; Table S4.1.
For the latest statistics on deaths due to COVID-19, see Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reports Provisional Mortality Statistics and COVID-19 Mortality in Australia, and ‘Chapter 1 The impact of a new disease: COVID-19 from 2020, 2021 and into 2022’ in Australia’s health 2022: data insights.
In Australia, death rates have continued to decline since at least the early 1900s. Between 1907 and 2021, the crude death rate decreased by 38% (41% for males and 34% for females). When accounting for changes in the population age structure over this period, the age-standardised death rate fell by 75% (73% for males and 77% for females). This was largely driven by the decline of infant and child deaths during this period; from 2,412 deaths per 100,000 children under 5 in 1907 to 77 per 100,000 in 2021 (decrease of 97%).
As in many other developed nations, Australia has experienced a ‘health transition’ during the 20th century (Beaglehole and Bonita 1997). While infectious diseases such as influenza and tuberculosis caused the most deaths in the early 1900s, from the 1930s onwards cardiovascular diseases and cancers were the leading causes of death. See also Changing patterns of mortality in Australia since 1900 in Australia’s health 2022: data insights.
In the last decade, the 10 leading causes of death have generally remained the same, albeit with different rankings (Figure 4).
- In both 2011 and 2021, coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death for males. For females, the leading cause of death in 2011 was coronary heart disease, however in 2021 it was dementia including Alzheimer’s disease.
- For both males and females, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease increased in rank between 2011 and 2021.
- Deaths due to lung, prostate, and colorectal cancer decreased in ranking for males over this period. For females there was a decrease in ranking for deaths due to breast cancer, but no change for lung and colorectal cancer.
See Trends in deaths for more information.
Figure 4: Change in disease ranking and the proportion of all deaths for the leading 10 underlying causes of death in Australia, by sex, between 2011 and 2021
Note: Colour lines link the same leading causes of death in 2011 with those in 2021; a black line means the ranking of the cause of death remained the same in 2021 as in 2011; an orange line, that the ranking of the cause of death rose compared with that in 2011; and a green line, that the ranking of the cause of death in 2021 decreased compared with that in 2011.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
Rates of death and leading causes of death differ between population groups:
- In the period 2017–2021, the crude death rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was 455 deaths per 100,000 population.
- Age-standardisation is used to compare populations with different age structures. In 2017–2021, the age-standardised death rate among Indigenous Australians was 1.8 times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians (941 and 532 deaths per 100,000 population respectively).
- The 3 leading causes of death for Indigenous Australians were coronary heart disease, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), whereas for non-Indigenous Australians they were coronary heart disease, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, and cerebrovascular disease (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Leading underlying causes of death in Australia, by Indigenous status, 2017–2021
Note: Cause of death data by Indigenous status are restricted to those 5 states and territories where information on Indigenous status is considered of sufficient quality and completeness of reporting: New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory.
Source: AIHW National Mortality Database.
Rates of death and leading causes of death differ between the areas where people live:
- In the period 2017–2021, crude death rates were highest in Inner regional areas (834 deaths per 100,000) and lowest in Very remote areas (554 per 100,000).
- Age-standardised death rates increased with increasing remoteness. For people living in Very remote areas the age-standardised death rate was 1.6 times the rate for people living in Major cities (768 and 488 deaths per 100,000 population, respectively).
- Coronary heart disease, COPD and lung cancer were among the 5 leading causes of death in all remoteness areas.
- Diabetes and suicide were among the 5 leading causes of death in Very remote areas only; dementia including Alzheimer’s disease and cerebrovascular disease were among the 5 leading causes in all remoteness areas except Very remote areas.
Rates of death and leading causes of death differ between socioeconomic groups:
- In the period 2017–2021, crude death rates were highest in the lowest socioeconomic areas (782 deaths per 100,000) and lowest in the highest socioeconomic areas (526 per 100,000 population).
- Age-standardised death rates decreased with increasing socioeconomic position. For people living in the lowest socioeconomic areas, the age-standardised death rate was 1.5 times the rate for people living in the highest socioeconomic areas (610 and 416 deaths per 100,000 population, respectively).
- Four of the 5 leading causes of death nationally were among the 5 leading causes in all socioeconomic areas (coronary heart disease, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, cerebrovascular disease, and lung cancer). For these causes except dementia, the age-standardised death rate was highest in the lowest socioeconomic area, and lowest in the highest area.
- Death rates for dementia were similar across each socioeconomic area.
Death statistics are usually compiled using the ‘underlying cause of death’ only. However, in most cases, more than one disease contributes to death. Causes listed on a death certificate that are not the underlying cause of death are called ‘associated causes of death’. See Multiple causes of death for more information.
In 2021, 80% of natural deaths (that is, deaths not due to external causes such as accidents, injury and poisoning, or ill-defined causes) had more than one cause recorded on the death certificate (on average, 3.3 causes were recorded).
Some underlying causes of deaths had a higher number of associated causes of deaths than others:
- Deaths due to diabetes have an average of 5.5 causes recorded.
- Deaths due to dementia have an average of 3.1 causes recorded.
Some diseases were more likely to be reported as either the underlying or as an associated cause of death. For example:
- Kidney failure is more likely to be reported as an associated cause of death, with 40% of deaths due to diabetes reporting chronic or unspecified kidney failure.
- Liver and lung cancers are more likely to be reported as an underlying cause of death. For deaths with these causes recorded on the certificate, 90% of the underlying causes were due to the liver or lung cancer.
Life expectancy measures how long, on average, a person is expected to live based on current age and sex-specific death rates. Life expectancy at birth is expressed as the number of years of life a newborn is expected to live.
Australia has one of the highest life expectancies in the world – ranked fifth (males and females combined) in 2021, among the 38 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (OECD 2021). In Australia, a boy born in 2019–2021 can expect to live to the age of 81.3 and a girl can be expected to live to 85.4 (ABS 2022).
As with death rates and leading causes of death, life expectancy varies between population groups within Australia. For Indigenous Australians born in 2015–2017, life expectancy is estimated to be 8.6 years lower than that of the non-Indigenous population for males (71.6 years compared with 80.2) and 7.8 years lower for females (75.6 years compared with 83.4) (ABS 2018).
See Life expectancy for more information.
For more information on causes of death in Australia, see:
- General Record of Incidence of Mortality (GRIM) books
- Mortality Over Regions and Time (MORT) books
- Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Deaths, Australia, 2021
- ABS Causes of death, Australia, 2021
See Life expectancy & deaths for more on this topic.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2018) Life Tables for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2015–2017, ABS cat. no. 3302.0.55.003, ABS, Australian Government, accessed 24 February 2022.
ABS (2022) Life tables, 2019–2021, ABS, Australian Government, accessed 27 April 2023.
Beaglehole R and Bonita R (1997) Public health at the crossroads: achievements and prospects, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Becker R, Silvi J, Ma Fat D, L’Hours A and Laurenti R (2006) ‘A method for deriving leading causes of death’, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 84:297–304.
OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) (2023) Health status, OECD Health Statistics (database), OECD, accessed 27 April 2023.