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 gap in life expectancy 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 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian population made up 2.4% of the total Australian population but, despite its much younger age structure, carried 3.6% of the total population disease burden. The rate of burden increased at much younger ages for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and was also considerably higher for each age group compared with the total Australian population (Vos et al. 2007).
Findings:In 2005–07, life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples 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 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations of sufficient size to calculate Indigenous life expectancy estimates, the lowest were for those living in the NT and WA and the highest in NSW and Qld.
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 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in mortality data in previous years. However, a study of mortality trends in the NT found that life expectancy at birth among Indigenous Australians in the NT has risen considerably between 1967 and 2006, increasing from 52.5 years for males and 53.9 years for females to around 60.2 years for males and 69.8 years for females. Over the same period, the gap between life expectancy for NT Indigenous females and NT non-Indigenous females narrowed due to a rapid improvement in the life expectancy of NT Indigenous females, while the gap between NT Indigenous males and NT non-Indigenous males widened due to the slow improvement in the life expectancy in NT Indigenous males (Wang et al. 2010b). Declines in infant mortality accounted for a large proportion of the increase in life expectancy for the NT Indigenous population between the late 1960s and mid-1980s, especially for males (Wilson et al. 2007). 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 NT.
A recent study in Qld has found a significant improvement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life expectancy between 2002–04 and 2005–07. The average annual gain in life expectancy at birth for females was 0.55 years, while for males it was 0.67 years. Adult mortality rates from ages 55 years and over were found to be the main driver of this improvement. Large gaps were found to still exist, particularly from ages 35 years and over (Health Statistics Centre 2012).
The gap in life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples 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.Top of page
Implications:The limited trend data available for the NT 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 are 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 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples 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.Top of page
Figure 68—Life expectancy at birth, Indigenous and non-Indigenous population, by sex and state/territory, 2005–07Males
Sources: ABS 2009a
Sources: ABS 2009aTop of page
Table 19—Life expectancy at birth, by Indigenous status and sex, selected states and territories, 2005–07
|Indigenous males||Non-Indigenous males||Indigenous females||Non-Indigenous females|
|New South Wales|
Sources: ABS 2009aTop of page
Figure 69—Life expectancy at birth for males and females in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, by Indigenous status, various yearsMales
Sources: Life expectancy estimates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians are for 2005–07 (ABS 2009a). Life expectancy estimates for Maoris and the total New Zealand population are for 2005–07. 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
Sources: Life expectancy estimates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians are for 2005–07 (ABS 2009a). Life expectancy estimates for Maoris and the total New Zealand population are for 2005–07. 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 CanadaTop of page