Life expectancy and deaths are widely used as indicators of population health. Although Australia’s national life expectancy is high compared with that of other countries, there are significant disparities between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and non-Indigenous Australians.

Deaths data by Indigenous status are reported for New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory, as these jurisdictions have sufficient levels of Indigenous identification and numbers of deaths to support analysis.

Life expectancy

Life expectancy is a summary measure of how long a person can expect to live and is not a measure of the quality of life.

In 2015–2017, life expectancy at birth for Indigenous Australians was estimated to be 71.6 years for males and 75.6 years for females. In comparison, over the same period life expectancy at birth for non-Indigenous Australians was 80.2 years for males and 83.4 years for females (Figure 1) (AIHW 2019).

Closing the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation (by 2031) is one of the original Closing the Gap targets set by the Council of Australian Governments in 2008. Based on the most recent data, progress on the target is not on track to be met (PM&C 2019).
 

Life expectancy at birth is higher in females than males, and higher among non-Indigenous Australians in both sexes. In 2015–2017, life expectancy was 75.6 years for Indigenous females, 83.4 for non-Indigenous females, 71.6 for Indigenous males and 80.2 for non-Indigenous males. 

Remoteness areas

In 2015–2017, life expectancy at birth among Indigenous Australians decreased with increased remoteness, among both males and females (Table 1). 

Table 1: Indigenous life expectancy by remoteness, 2015–2017

 

Males

Females

Major cities

72.1

76.5

Inner and Outer regional

70.0

74.8

Remote and Very remote

65.9

69.6

Source: ABS 2018.

Socioeconomic areas

Life expectancy at birth among Indigenous Australians also varied according to the socioeconomic level of the area in which people lived, with those living in the most disadvantaged areas having lower life expectancy.

Table 2 presents life expectancy by the ABS’s Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA) based on the Index of Relative Socio-Economic Disadvantage (IRSD).

Males and females living in the most disadvantaged areas had a life expectancy which was 4.2 and 3.8 years lower than those living in the least disadvantaged areas respectively.

Table 2: Indigenous life expectancy distribution by SEIFA level of disadvantage, 2015–2017

Quintile

Males

Females

1 (most disadvantaged)

68.2

72.8

2

70.3

75.5

3

69.9

74.3

4 and 5 combined (least disadvantaged)

72.4

76.6

Note: Socioeconomic areas based on Index of Relative Socio-Economic Disadvantage.

Source: ABS 2018.

Deaths

In 2018, after accounting for differences in age structures in the populations, the overall death rate for Indigenous Australians was almost twice the rate for non-Indigenous Australians.

Age-specific death rate

In 2018, there were 3,218 deaths among Indigenous Australians. The median age at death for Indigenous Australians was 60, compared with 82 for non-Indigenous Australians. This result partly reflects the fact that Australia’s Indigenous population is considerably younger than the non-Indigenous population. See Profile of Indigenous Australians.

Death rates differ by age group among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians (Figure 2).
 

For all Australians, death rates decrease from 0 years until 5–14 years, after which they steadily increase. Death rates are higher for Indigenous Australians across all age groups (except the total). The age group with the highest death rate is those aged 75 and over, with a rate of 7,420.5 per 100,000 for Indigenous Australians and 6,176.1 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous Australians. 

From 2008 to 2018, the Indigenous death rate fell across all age groups, except those aged 75 and over. However, the Indigenous death rate was higher than the non-Indigenous in each age group (Figure 3).
 

The death rate for Indigenous Australians aged 0–4 has decreased from 172.2 per 100,000 in 2008 to 140.8 per 100,000 in 2018. Among non-Indigenous Australians, the 0–4 death rate decreased from 101.2 per 100,000 to 66.8 per 100,000 in the same time period. The death rate is higher among Indigenous Australians across every age group. 

The death rate for children under 5 is a key indicator of the general health and wellbeing of a population.

In 2018 in New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory combined, the majority (85%) of child deaths occurred among infants:

  • There were 117 deaths among Indigenous children aged under 5—a death rate of 140.8 per 100,000 population (ABS 2019b).
  • Of these, 99 deaths (85%) were among Indigenous infants (<1)—a death rate of 5.1 per 1,000 live births (ABS 2019b) (Figure 4).
     

Close to 85% of Indigenous child mortality happens within the first year of life. In 2018, this means that 99 deaths happened under the age of 1, and 18 between ages 1 and 4 (inclusive). 

Causes of death

Broad causes of death

Between 2008 and 2018, Indigenous age-standardised rates of death due to circulatory diseases, diabetes and kidney diseases fell, while rates of death due to cancer and respiratory diseases rose. In 2017, cancer overtook circulatory diseases as the leading cause of death among Indigenous Australians (Figure 5).
 

In 2017, cancer overtook circulatory diseases as the leading broad cause of death among Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) Australians. Death rates are higher among Indigenous Australians across all broad causes of death between 2008 and 2018. 

Specific causes of death

The leading specific cause of death for Indigenous Australians overall in 2018 was Ischaemic heart disease, accounting for 390 deaths (12.1% of all deaths). Diabetes was the second leading specific cause of death, accounting for 232 deaths (7.2% of all deaths) at a rate of 72.1 deaths per 100,000 in 2018 (ABS 2019a).

Across Indigenous males and females, four of the top five leading specific causes of death are the same, but they have different rankings. However, there are some larger differences—for example when looking individually by sex, for Indigenous males intentional self-harm is the second leading specific cause, but is ranked seventh for Indigenous females (see box ‘A focus on suicide’). Dementia, including Alzheimer disease is the fifth ranked specific cause among Indigenous females, but is ranked 12th for Indigenous males (ABS 2019a).

A focus on suicide

In 2018, 169 Indigenous Australians died by suicide. Age-standardised rates of Indigenous deaths by suicide have increased over time from 20.2 per 100,000 persons in 2009⁠–⁠2013 to 23.7 per 100,000 persons in 2014⁠–⁠2018, which is almost double that of non-Indigenous Australians in 2014⁠–⁠18 (12.3 per 100,000 persons). Suicide is also a pronounced issue for Indigenous youth—in the five years from 2014 to 2018, suicide rates were highest for those aged 25⁠–⁠34 years (47.1 per 100,000) and 15⁠–⁠24 (40.5 per 100,000) but then declined with age to less than 10 per 100,000 for those aged 65 and over (ABS 2019a).

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on Indigenous life expectancy and deaths, see:

Visit Indigenous Australians for more on this topic.

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2018. Life tables for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2015⁠–⁠2017. ABS cat. no. 3302.0.55.003. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019a. Causes of death, Australia, 2018. ABS cat. no. 3303.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019b. Deaths, Australia, 2018. ABS cat. no. 3302.0. Canberra: ABS.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2018. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework (HPF) report 2017. Cat. no. IHW 194. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019. Deaths in Australia. Cat. no. PHE 229. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2020, forthcoming. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework (HPF) report 2020. Canberra: AIHW.

PM&C (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet) 2019. Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s report. Canberra: PM&C.