Why is it important?:Life expectancy at birth is an estimate of how long a person born today would live, on average, if current mortality rates in every age group remained constant throughout the person’s life. It is a way to summarise current mortality rates in an easily understood measure to which most people can directly relate.
Life expectancy is widely viewed as a key measure of the health of populations. Closing the life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians has been adopted as a high level target by COAG, which aims to close the life expectancy gap within a generation (COAG 2008a).
Life expectancy is affected by many factors such as: socioeconomic status, including employment, income, education and economic wellbeing; the quality of the health system and the ability of people to access it; health behaviours such as tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption, poor nutrition and lack of exercise; social factors; genetic factors; and environmental factors including overcrowded housing, lack of clean drinking water and adequate sanitation.
In 2003, the Indigenous Australian population made up 2.4% of the total Australian population but, despite its much younger structure, carried 3.6% of the total population disease burden. The rate of burden increased at much younger ages for Indigenous Australians and was also considerably higher at each age group compared with the total Australian population (Vos et al. 2007).
Findings:For this report, life expectancy has been updated to reflect the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates for the period 2005–07.
In this period, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life expectancy was estimated to be 11.5 years lower than that of the non-Indigenous population for males (67.2 compared with 78.7 years) and 9.7 years lower for females (72.9 compared with 82.6 years). For the four jurisdictions with sufficient size Indigenous populations to calculate Indigenous life expectancy estimates, the lowest were for those living in the Northern Territory and Western Australia and highest in New South Wales and Queensland.
National trend data on life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are not available due to changes in methods for estimating life expectancy, and the unknown and variable quality of the identification of Indigenous Australians in mortality data in previous years. However, a study of mortality trends in the Northern Territory found that the life expectancy at birth of Indigenous Australians has risen considerably, increasing from 52 years for males and 54 years for females in the late 1960s to around 60 years for males and 68 years for females in recent years (Wilson et al. 2007). The gap between life expectancy for Northern Territory Indigenous women and total Australian women narrowed between 1967 and 2004, while the gap between Northern Territory Indigenous men and total Australian men remained the same. Declines in infant mortality accounted for a large proportion of the increase in life expectancy for the Northern Territory Indigenous population between the late 1960s and mid 1980s, especially for males. From the mid 1980s to the early 2000s, declines in mortality at ages 45 years and over were responsible for the majority of life expectancy gains for both Indigenous males and females in the Northern Territory.
The gap in life expectancy between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the population in Australia appears to be larger than in other countries where Indigenous peoples share a similar history of relatively recent European colonisation, such as Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Caution must be used in comparing data with other countries due to variations in data quality and scope.
Implications:The limited trend data available for the Northern Territory indicate that life expectancy is increasing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but slowly.
Mortality trends are encouraging (see Measure 1.22). However, there remain deficiencies in the data on which life expectancy is based. This limits the extent to which differences in life expectancy can be calculated for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in different jurisdictions and different remoteness areas. More accurate measurement of life expectancy and the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is needed on a consistent basis to track progress over time.
The COAG commitment to close the life expectancy gap within a generation will require action addressing health, social, economic and environmental factors. The commitments Governments have made in these areas are reflected in the National Indigenous Reform Agreement (COAG 2008b), and the related National Partnership Agreements.
Figure 48 – Life expectancy at birth, Indigenous and non-Indigenous population 2005–2007, by sex and state/territory
Source: ABS 2009a
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Table 26 – Life expectancy at birth, Indigenous and non-Indigenous population, by sex and selected state/territory, 2005–2007
|New South Wales|
Figure 49 – Life expectancy at birth for males and females in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, by Indigenous status, various years
Sources: Life expectancy estimates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians are for 2005–2007 (ABS 2009a). Life expectancy estimates for Maoris and the total New Zealand population are for 2005–2007. Life expectancy estimates for Canada are for 2001. First Nations refers to the total North American Indian population including both Registered Indians and Non-Status Indians. Registered Indians are individuals who are registered under the Indian Act. Métis refers to individuals with mixed Aboriginal and European ancestry. Inuit are the original inhabitants of Arctic Canada
Text description of figure 49 (TXT 1KB)