Smoking still No.1 cause of premature death, disability: expert

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Almost 170,000 Australians died last year, with a public health expert linking four of the top five causes of death to smoking, and dementia-related deaths on the rise as the population ages.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data on the causes of death showed the number of deaths increased by 6.8 per cent to 169,301 in 2019.

Dementia was the second-highest cause of death in 2019 at 15,016 and is now the leading cause of death in women.Credit:SMH

Ischaemic heart disease, or coronary artery disease, remained the leading cause of death in Australia. In 2019, 18,244 people died from the condition, down from 21,721 in 2010.

Dementia was the second-highest cause of death in 2019 at 15,016 and is now the leading cause of death in women. Dementia-related deaths have jumped 66 per cent in the past 10 years, from 9003 in 2010.

The top five most common causes of death included stroke, lung cancer and chronic lower respiratory diseases.

Australian National University public health expert and epidemiologist professor Emily Banks said death rates for lung cancer, emphysema, stroke and ischaemic heart disease showed smoking remained the number one cause of premature death and disability in the country.

Top 5 causes of death in 2019

  • Ischaemic heart diseases 18,244
  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease 15,016
  • Cerebrovascular diseases (stroke, brain aneurysms) 9891
  • Lung cancer 8821
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases 8372

"What we're seeing now is the smoking epidemic in Australia," she said.

"The peak for men was in the '40s – three-quarters of men smoked. For women it was 1978. But we've still got those people who were smoking in their youth who are now dying."

Professor Banks said the number of dementia deaths was increasing because the population was ageing.

"The older you are and the older your population, the more people you have with dementia," she said.

There were 3318 deaths from intentional self-harm last year. While suicide was the 13th highest cause of death, it accounted for the most years of potential life lost due to a low median age at death of 43.9.

Three-quarters of those who suicided were men, with the rate of suicide in men increasing over the past 10 years.

The sixth most common cause of death was prostate cancer for men and breast cancer for women.

Professor Banks said the broad data helped paint a picture about what was happening in the lives of Australians.

"These data tell a story, collecting all the stories of those 170,000 people who have died, and tells a story of what's happened to us historically and also currently," she said. "It also says that every life matters and that we need to be thinking about what is going to make us healthier at every opportunity."

If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800; beyondblue 1300 224 636.

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