In 2018, there were 158,500 deaths in Australia (82,300 males; 76,200 females). These deaths had a wide range of causes but some were more common than others.

Leading causes of death is a useful measure of population health. It is of most value when making comparisons over time or between population groups. Changes in the pattern of causes of death can result from changes in behaviours, exposures to disease or injury, and social and environmental circumstances, as well as from data coding practices.

About deaths data

Causes of death are documented on death certificates by medical practitioners or coroners, and coded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics using the World Health Organization International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD).

The ICD allows diseases that cause death to be grouped in a way that is meaningful for monitoring population health. The AIHW uses the disease groups recommended by the World Health Organization (Becker et al. 2006), with minor modifications to suit the Australian context.

Leading causes of death presented in this snapshot are based on the ‘underlying cause of death’, which is the disease or injury that began the train of events leading to death.

Most deaths, however, result from more than one contributing disease or condition. Analyses using ‘associated causes of death’ may offer insight into the disease processes occurring at the end of life or, for injury causes of death, the nature of the injury.

What are the leading causes of death?

In 2018, the leading cause of death for males was coronary heart disease, accounting for 10,300 (13%) deaths. Dementia including Alzheimer’s disease was the leading cause of death for females, accounting for 9,000 (12%) deaths, closely followed by coronary heart disease (7,300; 10% of deaths). Cerebrovascular disease (which includes stroke), lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) make up the top 5 leading underlying causes of death in Australia for males and females of all ages combined (Figure 1).

Males account for more deaths due to coronary heart disease, lung cancer and COPD. Females account for the majority of deaths due to cerebrovascular disease and dementia including Alzheimer’s disease.
 

This figure presents the number of deaths for males and females by the top 5 leading causes of death in 2018.

In 2018, the leading cause of death for males was coronary heart disease. Dementia including Alzheimer’s disease was the leading cause of death for females, closely followed by coronary heart disease. Cerebrovascular disease (which includes stroke), lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) make up the top 5 leading underlying causes of death in Australia for males and females of all ages combined.

Leading causes of death by age

As well as differences by sex, the leading causes of death vary by age. Chronic diseases feature more prominently among people aged 45 and over, while the leading causes among people aged 1–44 are external, such as land transport accidents, suicides and accidental poisoning (Figure 2).

Among infants, perinatal and congenital conditions (which includes respiratory and cardiovascular disorders specific to the perinatal period, birth trauma and congenital malformations) caused most deaths. See Health of mothers and babies.

Land transport accidents were the most common cause of death among children aged 1–14 (accounting for 11% of all deaths in this age group). Suicide was the leading cause of death among people aged 15–24 and 25–44. Coronary heart disease and lung cancer were the leading causes of death for people aged 45–74. Dementia including Alzheimer’s disease was the second leading cause of death among people aged 75 and over (responsible for 12% of deaths), behind coronary heart disease (13%).
 

This figure shows the 5 leading causes of death across age groups. Among infants, perinatal and congenital conditions were responsible for most deaths. Land transport accidents were the most common cause of death among children aged 1–14 (accounting for 11% of all deaths in this age group). Suicide was the leading cause of death among persons aged 15–24 and 25–44. Coronary heart disease and lung cancer were the leading causes of death for persons aged 45–74. Dementia including Alzheimer’s disease was the second leading cause of death among persons aged 75 and older (responsible for 12% of deaths), behind coronary heart disease (13%).

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Trends

In Australia, death rates have continued to decline since at least the early 1900s. The age-standardised death rate fell by 73% between 1907 and 2018 for males, and by 77% for females. This was largely driven by the decline of infant and child deaths since the early 1900s. The leading causes of death at that time were infectious diseases and diseases of the circulatory system. As people are now more likely to reach older ages, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular diseases and other chronic conditions (notably cancers) are becoming more prominent as causes of death.

The decline in death rates is reflected in improved life expectancy at birth. A boy born in 2016–2018 can expect to live to the age of 80.7 and a girl can be expected to live to 84.9 years, compared to 55.2 and 58.8 years, respectively, in 1901–1910 (ABS 2014; ABS 2019).

The 10 leading causes of death in 2018 were generally the same as in 2008, albeit with different rankings (Figure 3).

  • For males, coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death in both these years, accounting for 17% of deaths in 2008 and 13% in 2018. However, the death rate from coronary heart disease has decreased over the decade. The largest change in leading causes of death for males from 2008 to 2018 was the rise of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, from seventh to third place.
  • For females, coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, breast cancer and colorectal cancer fell in rank from 2008 to 2018. On the other hand, there were notable increases—for dementia including Alzheimer’s disease (from third to first place) and for COPD (from seventh to fifth place).
  • Kidney failure moved out of the 10 leading causes of death for females after 2008 and was replaced by influenza and pneumonia in 2018.
     

This figure shows the 10 leading causes of death and their percentage of total deaths for males and females in 2008 and 2018.

For males, the 10 leading causes of death were the same in both years, albeit with different rankings. For females, kidney failure moved out of the 10 leading causes of death in 2008 and was replaced by influenza and pneumonia in 2018. Overall:

  • for males, coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death in both these years, accounting for 17% of deaths in 2008 and 13% in 2018. The largest change in leading causes of death for males from 2007 to 2017 was the rise of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, from seventh to third place.
  • For females, coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, breast cancer and  colorectal cancer fell in rank from 2008 to 2018. On the other hand, there were notable increases—for dementia including Alzheimer’s disease  (from third to first place) and for COPD (from seventh to fifth place).
  • Kidney failure moved out of the 10 leading causes of death for females in 2008 and was replaced by influenza and pneumonia in 2018.
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Variation between population groups

Leading causes of death differ between population groups. This may be driven by variations in the population characteristics, causes of death at different ages, characteristics of the place where people live, the prevalence of illness and risk factors, and access to health services.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians

  • In 2014–2018, the 5 leading causes of death for Indigenous Australians were coronary heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer, COPD and suicide.
  • For Indigenous Australians, the age-standardised death rate for diabetes was over 5 times as high as for non-Indigenous Australians (78 compared with 15 deaths per 100,000 population). For COPD, it was almost 3 times as high (70 compared with 24 deaths per 100,000 population). 
  • Diabetes and suicide were not included in the 5 leading causes of death for non-Indigenous Australians (which were coronary heart disease, dementia including Alzheimer’s, cerebrovascular disease, lung cancer, and COPD) (Figure 4).

See Indigenous life expectancy and deaths.
 

This figure presents the 5 leading causes of death for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, for persons, 2014–2018.

Among Indigenous Australians, the 5 leading causes of death were coronary heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer, COPD and suicide. For non-Indigenous Australians, the 5 leading causes of death were coronary heart disease, dementia including Alzhemier disease, cerebrovascular disease, lung cancer and COPD.

Remoteness areas

  • In 2014–2018, the overall age-standardised death rate increased with increasing remoteness. In Very remote areas, the age-standardised mortality rate was 1.5 times the rate in Major cities (773 and 506 deaths per 100,000 population respectively).
  • The top 5 causes of death in Very remote areas were the same as for the total Indigenous population—coronary heart disease, diabetes, COPD, lung cancer and suicide.
  • Coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death across all remoteness areas; in Very remote areas, the age-standardised death rate was 1.7 times the rate in Major cities (97 and 59 deaths per 100,000 population respectively).
  • Diabetes was the second leading cause of death in Very remote areas and seventh in Major cities—the age-standardised death rates were almost 4 times as high in Very remote areas as in Major cities (57 and 14 deaths per 100,000 respectively).
  • In Very remote areas, the age-standardised death rates for suicide were 2.2 times as high as in Major cities (24 and 11 deaths per 100,000 respectively).
  • Dementia including Alzheimer’s disease had a lower ranking in Remote and very remote areas compared with Major cities and Regional areas (Figure 5).

See Rural and remote health.
 

This figure presents the 5 leading causes of death by remoteness area, for persons, 2014–2018.

Coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death across all remoteness areas. Diabetes was the second leading cause of death in Very remote areas and the fifth leading cause of death in Remote areas; it was not in the 5 leading causes of death for Major cities and Regional areas.  

Suicide was included in the 5 leading causes of death in Very remote areas; it was not in the 5 leading causes of death for other remoteness areas. 

Dementia including Alzheimer’s disease had a lower ranking in Remote and very remote areas compared with Major cities and Regional areas.

Socioeconomic areas

  • In the period 2014–2018, the overall age-standardised death rate decreased with increasing socioeconomic position. For people living in the lowest socioeconomic areas, the age-standardised death rate was 1.5 times the rate for people living in the highest socioeconomic areas (638 and 432 deaths per 100,000 respectively).
  • Four leading causes of death were common across all 5 socioeconomic areas—coronary heart disease, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, cerebrovascular disease and lung cancer. Colorectal cancer was the fifth leading cause of death for the highest socioeconomic areas, while in the other socioeconomic areas this was COPD.
  • For people living in the lowest socioeconomic areas, age-standardised death rates for diabetes, COPD and lung cancer were about twice those for people living in the highest socioeconomic areas (diabetes: 23 and 10 deaths per 100,000 respectively; COPD: 35 and 15 deaths per 100,000 respectively; and lung cancer: 38 and 20 deaths per 100,000 respectively).

See Health across socioeconomic groups.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on causes on death in Australia, see:

Visit Life expectancy & deaths for more on this topic.

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2014. Australian historical population statistics, 2014. ABS cat. no. 3105.0.65.001. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019. Life tables, states, territories and Australia, 2016–2018. ABS cat. no. 3302.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.

Becker R, Silvi J, Ma Fat D, L’Hours A & Laurenti R 2006. A method for deriving leading causes of death. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 84:297–304.