Leading Causes of Death in Australia 2021

Five diseases accounted for more than one-third of all deaths registered in Australia in 2021. And though our overall mortality rate remains low, Dementia is narrowing the gap to become one of Australia's deadliest diseases.
Five diseases accounted for more than one-third of all deaths registered in Australia in 2021. And though our overall mortality rate remains low, Dementia is narrowing the gap to become one of Australia's deadliest diseases.

Death statistics are a valuable tool for measuring the health of Australians.

They help identify key health issues impacting the population and can be used by health professionals to allocate resources for the prevention and treatment of these conditions.

In this article, we will use data sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to investigate Australia’s leading causes of death in 2021.

How many Australians died in 2021?

171,469 deaths were registered in Australia in 2021. Of these deaths:

  • 89,401 (52.1%) were male and 82,068 (47.9%) were female.
  • The median age at death was 79.4 years for males and 84.8 years for females. The overall median age at death, subsequently, was 82.0 years.
  • The age standardised death rate remained low at 507.2 deaths per 100,000 people.
Leading Causes of Death in Australia 2021
Leading Causes of Death in Australia 2021

What were the leading causes of death in Australia in 2021?

As in 2019 and 2020, the top five leading causes accounted for more than one-third of all registered deaths. A closer look at the statistics shows:

  • The leading cause was Ischaemic heart disease, which accounted for 17,331 deaths (10.1%) and had a median age of 84.3 years.
  • The second leading cause was Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, which accounted for 15,940 deaths and had a high median age of 89.2 years.
  • The third leading cause was Cerebrovascular diseases, which accounted for 9,800 deaths and had a median age of 86.2 years.
  • The fourth leading cause was Malignant neoplasm of trachea, bronchus and lung, which accounted for 8,674 deaths and had a median age of 74.7 years.
  • The fifth leading cause was Chronic lower respiratory diseases, which accounted for 7,805 deaths and had a median age of 80.6 years.

Interesting Trends

Some interesting trends among the five leading causes of death include:

  • Deaths from the five leading causes all increased from 2020, as Australia recorded significantly lower than expected mortality during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The rate difference between Ischaemic heart disease and Dementia continues to narrow. Excluding 2020 (when death rates reached historical lows), the rate of deaths due to Ischaemic heart disease has been decreasing since 2012, while the crude death rates due to Dementia were the highest in the time series.
  • The rate of deaths due to Cerebrovascular diseases, Malignant neoplasms of trachea, bronchus and lung, and Chronic lower respiratory diseases have also declined from 2012.
  • The rank order of the top 5 leading causes has remained the same since 2018, and they are all non-communicable diseases.

Some interesting trends among the other leading causes of death are as follows:

  • For the first time in the ten year time series, Influenza and pneumonia did not appear in the 20 leading causes of death. In fact, there were only 2 deaths attributed to Influenza, an all-time low.
  • COVID-19 ranked as the 34th leading cause, and it was responsible for 1,122 deaths.
  • Suicide was the 15th leading cause, and people who died by suicide had a median age of 44.8 years.
Leading Causes of Male Deaths in Australia 2021
Leading Causes of Male Deaths in Australia 2021

Leading Causes of Death – Male

As we mentioned earlier, 89,401 males died in 2021. Of these deaths:

  • The leading cause was Ischaemic heart disease, which accounted for 10,371 deaths. This was almost double the number of deaths attributed to the second leading cause, Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. In saying that, the SDR for Ischaemic heart disease continues to decrease from 2012.
  • Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, was responsible for 5,664 deaths. The SDR for Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, continues to increase from 2012.
  • Suicide was the 10th leading cause. Three-quarters of the deaths attributed to suicide were male.
  • COVID-19 was the 33rd leading cause and accounted for 660 male deaths.
  • Influenza and pneumonia was the 23rd leading cause.
Leading Causes of Female Deaths in Australia 2021
Leading Causes of Female Deaths in Australia 2021

Leading Causes of Death – Female

For the 82,068 females who died in 2021:

  • Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease was the leading cause and accounted for 10,276 deaths. Over the last decade, the death rate for Dementia has increased by 21.5%, and almost two-thirds of the deaths attributed to Dementia were female.
  • Ischaemic heart disease was the second leading cause and was responsible for 6,960 deaths.
  • Malignant neoplasms of breast (breast cancer) was the sixth leading cause overall with 3,129 deaths. It was also the second leading cause of cancer deaths, following Malignant neoplasm of trachea, bronchus and lung (lung cancer, which was the fifth leading cause overall with 3,706 deaths).
  • Accidental falls were the most common external cause of death and the 12th leading cause overall. In 2021, 1,858 women died due to accidental falls.
  • COVID-19 was the 32nd leading cause and accounted for 462 female deaths.
Leading Causes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Deaths in Australia 2021
Leading Causes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Deaths in Australia 2021

Leading Causes of Death – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

For the 3,696 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who died in 2021 across NSW, QLD, WA, SA, and NT:

  • The median age was 62.5 years.
  • Ischaemic heart disease was the leading cause for males.
  • For the first time since 2013, diabetes was the leading cause for females.
  • Suicide was the second leading cause for males and the 7th leading cause for females.
  • Those who had a usual residence in the Northern territory had the highest mortality rate.

Final thoughts

In 2021, Australia recorded a 3.2% higher mortality rate compared to 2020. However, this was to be expected, as death rates reached historical lows in 2020 during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall, our mortality rate remains low, and the rank order of the top five leading causes of death has not changed since 2018. In saying that, the rate difference between Ischaemic heart disease and Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, continues to narrow.

Among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the median age at death continues to be much lower than that of the general population.

Likewise, for all 20 leading causes of death, the ASDRs are higher in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people compared to the general population.

It is important to take stock of these death statistics for the betterment of both individual and community health initiatives.

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