Most Australians are taking a chance with chronic disease

About 60% of Australians are not physically active enough to reap health benefits. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Nearly all Australians are taking a lifestyle risk that will increase the chance of developing a chronic disease, and more than half are taking two or three, a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says.

Diet is a common risk factor for chronic disease, according to the report, which says that more than 90% of Australians do not eat the recommended amounts of vegetables each day, and only half consume enough fruit.

“This is important because we know that people with low fruit and vegetable intake have higher risks of chronic diseases such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes,” said an institute spokeswoman, Ann Hunt.

The report considered risk factors such as obesity, high alcohol consumption, daily smoking, physical inactivity, high blood pressure, milk consumption and low vegetable and fruit intake. It found that 99% of people are exposing themselves to at least one of those risks, and 52% are taking two or three, increasing their chances of developing chronic diseases such as arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, depression, asthma and osteoporosis.

About 60% of Australians do not do enough physical activity, the report said.

Men with five or more risk factors are twice as likely to report depression than men with two or fewer risk factors.

Similarly, women with five or more risk factors are three times more likely to report stroke, and 2½ times more likely to report depression, than women with two or fewer risk factors.

The report also shows that certain risk factors commonly occur together.

“People who consume alcohol at risky levels are more likely to report daily smoking than those who don’t, and daily smoking is also more commonly reported by those who have insufficient levels of physical activity,” Ms Hunt said.

Chris Rissel, a Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney, said that “internationally speaking, Australia has one of the heavier populations, with projected increases of diabetes expected to substantially hit health budgets in all states and territories.

"Risk factors like inadequate physical activity, smoking or poor nutrition are obvious contributors, but these behaviours are directly affected by the urban environments we have built. For example, the planning decisions that build motorways but not public transport or cycleways, or decisions that allow developments to proceed without local employment, schools or services nearby, encourage driving, which is basically a sedentary activity.”

Stephen Leeder, the Director of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at University of Sydney, said the report was a “populist sound bite” that revealed little of substance.

“The strongest unmodifiable risk factor for just about everything is age,” Professor Leeder said. “The older you are the greater the risk. With chronic disease so prevalent, it hardly comes as a surprise, surely, that there are a lot of risk factors about - including age!

"Chronic disease is the thing that all of us in Australia are most likely to die from. We have just about the highest life expectancy in the world, so old age - when risk is high - is common and so are risk factors including so-called lifestyle factors that people who know no psychology, sociology, economics or any form of behavioural science gleefully state are modifiable.

"They are preventable - that is true - and health has improved across the globe as risk factor levels have followed economic development and education. That is how you change risk factors.”

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.