The health of the Australian population improved markedly during the twentieth century. The toll of infectious disease was reduced sharply; life expectancy at birth continued to increase; death rates from coronary heart disease and stroke have declined sharply since the late 1960s; and in more recent years we have witnessed a downward trend in deaths from lung, colorectal and breast cancer. Despite this, health gains have not been equally shared across all sections of the population. At the beginning of the twenty-first century there were considerable health-related inequalities between population subgroups in Australia.

This report examines some of these health-related inequalities by area-level socioeconomic disadvantage, equivalised household income, education and occupation among, where applicable, infants and children (0–14 years), young adults (15–24 years), working-age adults (25–64 years), and older persons (65 years or more) for the periods 1989–90, 1995, and 2001. Socioeconomic inequalities were examined on the basis of four self-reported health-related indicators: morbidity, health behaviours, risk factors, and health service use.

The primary data sources used in this report are the three latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) National Health Surveys (NHS): 1989–90, 1995 and 2001. The ABS 1995 National Nutrition Survey (NNS) was also used for dietary-related behaviour data for 1995 to allow comparison with the relevant 2001 NHS items. Socioeconomically disadvantaged groups experienced more ill health, and were more likely to engage in behaviours or have a risk factor profile consistent with their poorer health status. Their use of health care services suggested that they were less likely to act to prevent disease or detect it at an asymptomatic stage.

Socioeconomic inequalities for many of the health-related indicators were found for both males and females and for each age group, and they were evident irrespective of how socioeconomic position was measured. The health burden in the Australian population attributable to socioeconomic disadvantage is large; and much of this burden is potentially avoidable.