Improving Health & Life Expectancy

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the content on this page may contain images and references to deceased persons. 

The global life expectancy is 70 years; this is the average life span for Indigenous Australians though it’s almost 80 years for other Australians. It’s much lower in developing nations largely due to noncommunicable diseases. One in eight of these deaths affects children under five years. Most of these preventable infant deaths occur in developing countries; 74% of which are in Africa and South-East Asia. How does social science help improve life expectancy? By examining health risks amongst vulnerable populations and addressing inequalities that impact wellbeing.

Don't regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.
Don’t regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.

How to Improve Life Outcomes in Australia

Kiesha Glass, Indigenous girl from Mount Gambier, represents her dream. Photo: Marcus Thompson via Flickr
Kiesha Glass, Indigenous girl from Mount Gambier, represents her dream. Photo: Marcus Thompson via Flickr

The Closing the Gap report of 2013 identifies that Indigenous mortality is linked to preventable chronic diseases such as cardiovascular-related issues, circulatory disease, diabetes, cancer, and injuries. Indigenous Australians are seven times more likely to get diabetes than other Australians; they are also three times more likely to be smokers; and they are significantly more likely to have an undiagnosed cancer for much longer. This is due to poor access to medical care as well as nutritional and health education.

Life expectancy can therefore be improved by targeting the quality of life and lifestyle of our Indigenous communities – but these have to include Indigenous community workers, as Government programs are poorly targeted. Dr Lesley Russell, senior research fellow at the ANU’s Australian Primary Health Care Research Institute, tells Crickey:

We can’t do these things to Aborigines, we need to do it with them.

Early intervention is therefore important, using local knowledge and leadership.

Community health. Photo: Melbourne Water via Flickr
Community health. Photo: Melbourne Water via Flickr

As for the rest of the Australian population, life expectancy is rising. Australian men have the third highest life expectancy in the world (after Iceland and Switzerland), while girls have the seventh highest life expectancy. This trend is largely attributed to better lifestyle choices, especially lower smoking rates.

While cardiovascular disease rates have improved, heart attacks, stroke and vascular illnesses are still the largest collective impediment to improving Australia’s national health.  Cancers represent the greatest threat to our national wellbeing (19% of diseases), followed by cardiovascular disease (18%) and mental health illnesses (13%).

How Social Science Helps

With an increasingly ageing population, social scientists work with health organisations and policy makers in order to address the socio-economic dynamics that increase health risks. The focus of our work is on analysing changing trends over the long-term. We also work in multi-disciplinary efforts with medical practitioners, demographers, and other epidemiology experts. Epidemiology is the study of the patterns, causes, and management of disease amongst populations. This includes the evaluation and prevention of disease and planning for health services and policies.

Indigenous performers celebrate culture in Mosman, Sydney. Photo: Mosman Council
Indigenous performers celebrate culture in Mosman, Sydney. Photo: Mosman Council via Flickr

Social scientists work to establish programs that address chronic diseases before they develop and we also contribute to community education.  Social scientists emphase that wellbeing is about balance, while illness is about being “out of synch” with our bodies, our communities and our environment. As such, social scientists contribute to a holistic understanding of health that can better target life expectancy.  Sociologist Albert Albrecht writes:

To be healthy means to be of sound mind and body; to be integrated; to be whole. Over time and across societies, influential theorists have emphasised that health consists of balance, of being centred… When we speak of a healthy environment, we refer to the atmosphere of human rights, including work, and freedom of expression as well as clean air, adequate water and a sense of security.

Photo: Chi via Flickr
Photo: Chi via Flickr

Social scientists are concerned with not just trends in medicine to treat bodily ailments, but also how professionals interact with individuals and their communities. We address health knowledge – such as how people understand their bodies, how they experience wellbeing and illness, and the power relationships that disrupt balance. As noted, particular communities, like Indigenous groups, have their own practices and knowledge that we might better draw on in order to target quality of life and health.  Gender, age, culture and sexuality issues also require collaboration with specialist community groups  in order to better service the health needs of community members.

To be healthy means to be of sound mind and body; to be integrated; to be whole. Image: Social Science Insights
To be healthy means to be of sound mind and body; to be integrated; to be whole.

Learn More

Data and additional resources from World Health Organisation and Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Read my other resources: