Summary

Looking at how many people die and what caused their death can provide vital information about the health of a population. Examining patterns and trends in deaths can help explain differences and changes in the health of a population, contribute to the evaluation of health strategies and interventions, and guide planning and policy-making.

In 2020, there were 161,300 deaths in Australia (84,588 males; 76,712 females). Less than 1% of all deaths registered in Australia in 2020 occurred among children aged 0­–4 years, while two-thirds (66%) were among people aged 75 and over.

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, 10th revision (ICD-10).

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 page are based on the ‘underlying cause of death’, which is the disease or injury that began the train of events leading to death. The leading causes of death are those causes which account for the greatest number of deaths (or proportion of total deaths) in a specified population for a given period.

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. ‘Multiple causes of death’ statistics are based on both the underlying and associated causes of death.

See Technical notes for more information.

Leading causes of death by sex and age

In 2020, the leading cause of death for males was coronary heart disease, accounting for 10,040 (12%) deaths, followed by dementia including Alzheimer’s disease (Figure 1). For females, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease was the leading cause of death, accounting for 9,325 (12%) deaths, followed by coronary heart disease. Other diseases among the 5 leading causes of deaths for males and females were: cerebrovascular disease (which includes stroke), lung cancer, breast cancer (for females) and prostate cancer (for males).

Figure 1: Leading underlying causes of death in Australia, by sex, 2020

This figure shows that in Australia in 2020, the leading causes of death for males were coronary heart disease, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, lung cancer, cerebrovascular disease and prostate cancer. For females, the leading causes were dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, lung cancer and breast cancer.

Source: AIHW National Mortality Database.

As well as differences by sex, the leading causes of death vary by age (Figure 2). Among infants, most deaths in 2020 were due to perinatal and congenital conditions. Land transport accidents were the most common cause of death among children aged 1–14. Suicide was the leading cause of death among people aged 15–44.

Chronic diseases caused more deaths among older age groups. Coronary heart disease and lung cancer were the leading causes of death for people aged 45–74, while coronary heart disease and dementia including Alzheimer’s disease were the leading causes for people aged 75 and over.

See Leading cause of death for more information.

Figure 2: Leading underlying causes of death in Australia, by age group, 2018–2020

This figure shows the 5 leading causes of death in Australia for each age group in 2018–2020. Among infants, perinatal and congenital conditions was the leading cause of death. Land transport accidents were the most common cause of death among children aged 1–14. Suicide was the leading cause of death among people aged 15–24, followed by land transport accidents. For people aged 25–44, it was also suicide, followed by accidental poisoning. Coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death for people aged 45–64 and people aged 75–84. For people aged 65–74, lung cancer was the leading cause of death. Dementia including Alzheimer’s disease was the leading cause of death among people aged 85 and over.

Notes

  1. ‘Other ill-defined causes’ include the following codes: Symptoms, signs and abnormal clinical and laboratory findings, not elsewhere classified (ICD-10 codes R00–R99, excluding R95: Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)); Respiratory failure of newborn (P28.5); Respiratory failure, unspecified (J96.9). AIHW General Record of Incidence of Mortality (GRIM) books are available for selected leading causes of death.
  2. There were no suicide deaths in children under 5. The number of deaths of children attributed to suicide can be influenced by coronial reporting practices, see ABS 3303.0 – Causes of Death, Australia, 2017 (Explanatory Notes 91–100) for further information.

Source: AIHW National Mortality Database.

Deaths due to COVID-19

In 2020, there were 899 deaths due to COVID-19 registered in Australia. The majority of deaths occurred among people aged 85 and over, and among people residing in Victoria (59% and 89% of all COVID-19 deaths in 2020, respectively). See COVID-19 deaths.

For the latest statistics on deaths due to COVID-19, see Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reports Provisional Mortality Statistics and COVID-19 Mortality in Australia, and ‘Chapter 1 The impact of a new disease: COVID-19 from 2020, 2021 and into 2022’ in Australia’s health 2022: data insights (AIHW 2022 forthcoming).

Trends in deaths over time

In Australia, death rates have continued to decline since at least the early 1900s. Between 1907 and 2020, the crude death rate decreased by 42% (44% for males and 39% for females). When accounting for changes in the population age structure over this period, the age-standardised death rate fell by 76% (74% for males and 78% for females). This was largely driven by the decline of infant and child deaths during this period; from 2,412 deaths per 100,000 children under 5 in 1907 to 71 per 100,000 in 2020 (decrease of 97%).

As in many other developed nations, Australia has experienced a ‘health transition’ during the 20th century (Beaglehole and Bonita 1997). While infectious diseases such as influenza and tuberculosis caused the most deaths in the early 1900’s, from the 1930’s onwards cardiovascular diseases and cancers were the leading causes of death. See also ‘Chapter 4 Changing patterns of mortality in Australia since 1900’ in Australia’s health 2022: data insights (AIHW 2022 forthcoming).

In the last decade, the 10 leading causes of death have generally remained the same, albeit with different rankings (Figure 3).

  • In both 2010 and 2020, coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death for males. For females, the leading cause of death in 2010 was coronary heart disease, however in 2020 it was dementia including Alzheimer’s disease.
  • For both males and females, diabetes and dementia including Alzheimer’s disease increased in rank between 2010 and 2020.
  • Deaths due to lung, prostate, and colorectal cancer decreased in ranking for males over this period, whereas for females there was no change in the rankings for deaths due to lung, breast, and colorectal cancer.

See Trends in deaths& for more information.

Figure 3: Change in disease ranking and the proportion of all deaths for the leading 10 underlying causes of death in Australia, by sex, between 2010 and 2020

This figure shows the ranking and the proportion of all deaths for the leading 10 causes of death in 2010 and 2020 in Australia by sex. For both males and females, 9 of the 10 leading causes of death in 2010 were also ranked in the leading 10 causes of death in 2020. For both males and females coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death in 2010. In 2020, coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death for males, however for females it was dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, followed by coronary heart disease. 
For males, between 2010 and 2020, the following diseases decreased in ranking: lung cancer, cerebrovascular disease, prostate cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and colorectal cancer, whereas dementia including Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes increased in ranking. There was no change in the ranking of suicide. For females, between 2010 and 2020, the following diseases decreased in ranking: coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease and ‘heart failure and complications and ill-defined heart disease’, whereas dementia including Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes increase in ranking. There was no change in the ranking of lung cancer, breast cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or colorectal cancer.

Note: Colour lines link the same leading causes of death in 2010 with those in 2020; a black line means the ranking of the cause of death remained the same in 2020 as in 2010; an orange line, that the ranking of the cause of death in 2020 increased compared with that in 2010; and a green line, that the ranking of the cause of death in 2020 decreased compared with that in 2010.

Source: AIHW National Mortality Database.

Variation between population groups

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

  • In the period 2016–2020, the crude death rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was 442 deaths per 100,000 population.
  • Age-standardisation is used to compare populations with different age structures. In 2016–2020, the age-standardised death rate among Indigenous Australians was 1.7 times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians (935 and 541 deaths per 100,000 population respectively).
  • The 3 leading causes of death for Indigenous Australians were coronary heart disease, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), whereas for non-Indigenous Australians they were coronary heart disease, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, and cerebrovascular disease (Figure 4).

See Indigenous health and wellbeing.

Figure 4: Leading underlying causes of death in Australia, by Indigenous status, 2016–2020

This figure shows the 5 leading causes of death for Indigenous Australians compared to non-Indigenous Australians. The leading causes of death for Indigenous Australians were coronary heart disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and suicide. For non-Indigenous Australians the leading causes were coronary heart disease, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, cerebrovascular disease, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Note:  Mortality data by Indigenous status are restricted to those 5 states and territories where information on Indigenous status is considered of sufficient quality and completeness of reporting: New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

Source: AIHW National Mortality Database.

Remoteness areas

  • In the period 2016–2020, crude death rates were highest in Inner regional areas (831 deaths per 100,000) and lowest in Very remote areas (534 per 100,000).
  • Age-standardised death rates increased with increasing remoteness. For people living in Very remote areas the age-standardised death rate was 1.5 times the rate for people living in Major cities (743 and 489 deaths per 100,000 population, respectively).
  • Coronary heart disease, COPD and lung cancer were among the 5 leading causes of death in all remoteness areas.
  • Diabetes and suicide were among the 5 leading causes of death in Very remote areas only; dementia including Alzheimer’s disease and cerebrovascular disease were among the 5 leading causes in all remoteness areas except Very remote areas.

See Rural and remote health.

Socioeconomic areas

  • In the period 2016–2020, crude death rates were highest in the lowest socioeconomic areas (821 deaths per 100,000) and lowest in the highest socioeconomic areas (510 per 100,000 population).
  • Age-standardised death rates 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 (623 and 414 deaths per 100,000 population, respectively).
  • Four of the 5 leading causes of death were the same across all socioeconomic areas (coronary heart disease, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, cerebrovascular disease, and lung cancer), however for all of these causes, the age-standardised death rate was highest in the lowest socioeconomic area, and lowest in the highest area.

See Health across socioeconomic groups and Variations between population groups.

Multiple causes of death

Death statistics are usually compiled using the ‘underlying cause of death’ only. However, in most cases, more than one disease contributes to death. Causes listed on a death certificate that are not the underlying cause of death are called ‘associated causes of death’.

In 2020, 79% of natural deaths (that is, deaths not due to external causes such as accidents, injury and poisoning, or ill-defined causes) had more than one cause recorded on the death certificate and, on average, 3.2 causes were recorded. Some underlying causes of deaths had a higher number of associated causes of deaths than others, and some diseases were more likely to be reported as either the underlying or as an associated cause of death.

See Multiple causes of death for more information.

Life expectancy

Life expectancy measures how long, on average, a person is expected to live based on current age and sex-specific death rates. Life expectancy at birth is expressed as the number of years of life a newborn is expected to live.

Australia has one of the highest life expectancies in the world – ranked sixth (males and females combined) in 2020, among the 38 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (OECD 2021). In Australia, a boy born in 2018–2020 can expect to live to the age of 81.2 and a girl can be expected to live to 85.3 (ABS 2021). As with death rates and leading causes of death, life expectancy varies between population groups within Australia. For Indigenous Australians born in 2015–2017, life expectancy is estimated to be 8.6 years lower than that of the non-Indigenous population for males (71.6 years compared with 80.2) and 7.8 years lower for females (75.6 years compared with 83.4) (ABS 2018).

See Life expectancy for more information.

Where do I go for more information?

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

See Life expectancy & deaths for more on this topic.