The surprising number one cause of years of life lost in Australia in 2019

by | Relationships

What’s the leading cause of lost life years in Australia? The answer may not be what you think.

By pure numbers, the leading cause of death in Australia in 2019 was ischaemic heart disease, followed by dementia. But these mortality statistics don’t quantify the true burden of disease in Australia. That’s because when people die of heart disease, cancer or dementia, they tend to be elderly, which means – to be blunt – they didn’t lose many years of life. The picture is very different when you die young because many years of life have been lost.

The greatest cause of potential life lost in Australia in 2019 was not heart disease or cancer, but intentional self-harm. Despite ranking only 13th in the table of leading causes of death, when median age of death is taken into account, the true impact of suicide becomes evident.

Suicide accounted for 115,000 years of potential life lost, far exceeding the 7000 years lost to dementia and the 78,000 lost to ischaemic heart disease, according to a recent Australian Bureau of Statistics report.

In 2019, suicide was the leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 49. This premature mortality from intentional self-harm (with a particularly low median age at death of 44 years) and the number of suicides has driven it to the top of the chart for years of potential life lost, by a wide margin.

Cause of death 2019 cause of death ranking Number of deaths (2019) Median age of death (years) Years of potential life lost (YPLL)*
Ischaemic heart disease 1 18,244 84 78,052
Dementia 2 15,016 89.1 7061
Intentional self-harm 13 3318 43.9 115,221
*YPLL measures the gap between age at death and average life expectancy in Australia (currently 85 years for women and 79 years for men). Factoring in the number of deaths from a particular cause gives years of potential life lost.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics. Causes of Death, Australia. 23 October 2020.

What about the impact of COVID-19?

This 2019 data is pre-COVID-19. Given that suicide rates are increasing in younger cohorts anyway, the forecast for years of potential life lost to suicide for 2020 is worse. Layered on this is the upheaval and strain that COVID-19 has caused to people’s lives – their employment, finances, education, living conditions and relationships.

Mental health professionals are warning that adding in our currently overburdened mental health resources to this mix means that bending the mental health curve may well be the greatest challenge ahead.

And that’s a challenge for General Practice. If you’d like to know more about suicide prevention interventions, let us know and we’ll cover that next time.