Chronic disease

Chronic diseases are leading causes of death and disability in Australia.

Page last updated: 26 September 2012

They are also associated with high use of health care services, contributing to major funding pressures in Australian health care that are expected to rise over coming decades as prevalence increases.

These pages provide background information about chronic disease in Australia.


Chronic disease has been defined (footnote 1) as illness that is prolonged in duration, does not often resolve spontaneously, and is rarely cured completely. Chronic diseases are complex and varied in terms of their nature, how they are caused and the extent of their impact on the community. While some chronic diseases make large contributions to premature death, others contribute more to disability. Features common to most chronic diseases include:
  • complex causality, with multiple factors leading to their onset
  • a long development period, for which may there may be no symptoms
  • a prolonged course of illness, perhaps leading to other health complications
  • associated functional impairment or disability. Top of page


The results of the 2007-08 National Health Survey indicate a high prevalence of chronic diseases among Australians, including:
  • cancer (2% of the population – up from 1.6% in 2001)
  • diabetes (4% - up from 2.9% in 2001)
  • asthma (10% - down from 12% in 2001)
  • long-term mental or behavioural conditions (11% - up from fewer than 10% in 2001)
  • arthritis (15% - up from 14% in 2001)
  • conditions of the circulatory system (16% - down from 17% in 2001).(footnote 2)
Overall, the prevalence of many chronic diseases is increasing in Australia and the rest of the world due to a range of factors.

The ageing of our population has played a key role in the rise in prevalence of chronic disease. In the 2007-08 National Health Survey nearly all people aged 65 years and over reported having at least one long-term condition (with more than 80 per cent of people in this age group reported having three or more long-term conditions (footnote 3) compared with only 27% of children (footnote 4).

Increasing prevalence of chronic disease has also been attributed to early detection and improved treatments for diseases that previously caused premature death, as well as lifestyle factors, such as smoking or poor diet, that increase the risk of developing chronic disease (footnote 5). Top of page


In 2010, chronic diseases were the leading causes of death in Australia, with the most common causes including cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases and diabetes (footnote 6).

Common risk factors and prevention

A broad range of risk factors for chronic disease has been identified. These can be demographic, behavioural, biomedical, genetic, environmental, social or other factors, which can act independently or in combination, and some of which can be modified to reduce the risk of developing a chronic condition (footnote 7). Common modifiable risk factors include tobacco smoking, excess weight, physical inactivity and poor diet.

The National Preventative Health Strategy provides a blueprint for tackling the burden of chronic disease currently caused by obesity, tobacco, and excessive consumption of alcohol. It is directed at primary prevention and addresses all relevant arms of policy and all available points of leverage, in both the health and non-health sectors.

Funding was committed over six years (from 2009-10) under the COAG National Partnership Agreement on Preventive Health (NPAPH). The NPAPH sought to address the rising prevalence of lifestyle related chronic disease by laying the foundations for healthy behaviours in the daily lives of Australians through settings such as communities, early childhood education and care environments, schools and workplaces, supported by national social marketing campaigns (Measure Up and an anti-smoking campaign).

In order to strengthen national investment and infrastructure in preventive health, the Australian National Preventive Health Agency was established in 2011. Key functions of the agency included the provision of evidence-based advice on national preventive health issues and supporting behaviour change in the community through education and awareness programs.Top of page

National health priority areas

8 health areas which contribute significantly to the burden of illness and injury, and which have potential for health gains and reduction in the burden of disease, have been identified as national health priority areas: The National Health Priority Area (NHPA) initiative seeks to focus public attention and health policy on areas that contribute most to the burden of illness in the community, particularly if that burden can be significantly reduced. Monitoring NHPAs also provides useful information about the effectiveness of activities to target these conditions, and about the health of the nation more generally.Top of page

Programmes and initiatives

Given the increasing prevalence of chronic disease and the enormous associated personal, social and economic cost to the community, a wide range of programmes and initiatives provide assistance in the area of chronic disease, including:
  • Programmes to increase access to care and medicines
  • Initiatives to promote best-practice care
  • Research programmes
  • Programmes providing support to people with specific chronic diseases with the aim of reducing the overall burden in these areas
  • The eHealth record system can help people better manage chronic disease. Top of page

Historical reference documents

In 2005, a national chronic disease strategy, a blueprint for a national surveillance system and national service improvement frameworks were developed to encourage coordinated action in response to the growing impact of chronic disease.


1 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2012). Risk factors contributing to chronic disease, page 5.
2 Australian Bureau of Statistics. 4364.0 National Health Survey: summary of Results, 2007-08; 3464.0 National Health Survey : summary of results, 2001. Available at Australian Bureau of Statistics
3 ibid.
4 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2010). Australia’s Health 2010, page 298.
5 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2012). Risk factors contributing to chronic disease, page 5.
6 Australian Bureau of Statistics. 3303.0 Causes of death, Australia, 2010. Available at Australian Bureau of Statistics
7 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2006). Chronic diseases and associated risk factors in Australia, page 13.

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