Cheated death: Judith Daley could have been one of those who died of potentially avoidable causes between 1997 and 2012. Photo: Nic Walker
Judith Daley has cheated death. In 2009, she started getting vision migraines, which her doctors said would probably lead to a stroke if she did not change her lifestyle.
“It was very scary,” the 71-year-old Sydney resident said. “I hadn’t thought about stroke in any way … I was living what I thought was a normal retired life.”
In fact, Ms Daley was overweight, ate poorly and led a stressful life. Six years later, she has changed her diet, reduced her stress and lost 30 kilograms.
“I’m absolutely one of the lucky ones,” she said.
Ms Daley could have been one of the nearly half a million Australians younger than 75 who died of potentially avoidable causes between 1997 and 2012.
These 441,433 deaths from causes including heart disease, cancer and suicide, could have been prevented with the right healthcare and government policies, a new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Premature Mortality in Australia says.
Premature mortality means any death before the age of 75.
The share of premature deaths considered potentially avoidable has fallen steadily over the past 16 years. However, these deaths still made up half of Australia’s 49,652 premature deaths in 2012, compared with 59 per cent in 1997, the report found.
“What it shows is where we could actually make improvements so that people don’t die at younger ages,” institute spokeswoman Ann Hunt said.
By definition, all 441,433 lives could have been saved within the current health system.
Some deaths could have been prevented by people taking better care of themselves, such as by not smoking or being more active or seeking help from a doctor, she said.
“It could be lack of knowledge about going to the doctor; it could be living in areas where they don’t have immediate access to some of those treatments,” Ms Hunt said.
Other deaths go beyond the health system and the individual to encompass government policy and legislation.
“For deaths from road accidents, for example, we can see from the data how things like wearing seat belts and random breath testing and speed cameras … have helped reduce premature deaths,” she said.
Among Indigenous Australians, 80 per cent of deaths in the 16-year-period were premature. And among those deaths, more than 60 per cent could have been avoided, the institute’s figures show.
“The good news is that there has been a substantial decrease in the rate of premature deaths over time,” Ms Hunt said.
In 2012, 34 per cent of deaths in the general population were premature, down from 43 per cent in 1997.
Coronary heart disease was the leading cause of premature death in 2010-12, accounting for one in 10 deaths. It is also the leading cause of death in Australia overall.
Lung cancer came a close second, causing 9 per cent of premature deaths. More than half of all lung cancer deaths are of people younger than 75, the report found.
Suicide was the third leading cause, accounting for 4.5 per cent of premature deaths in 2010-12. More than nine in 10 people who died by suicide are younger than 75.
National Stroke Foundation chief executive Erin Lalor said the report highlighted the need for an accessible and affordable GP health check program to detect the risk of heart disease, stroke, chronic kidney disease or type 2 diabetes.
“Thousands of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters continue to die unnecessarily of stroke because they are not aware of the risk or what they can do to reduce it,” she said.
Cerebrovascular disease, including stroke, was the fifth leading cause of premature death in Australia in 2010-12.