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Australians live long, fat, pill-popping lives

02 Dec 2013

Australians are some of the fattest people in the developed world, and are among the most likely to be on antidepressants or cholesterol lowering medications.

But the country’s high quality health system means Australian can expect to live longer than most, and have among the best prospects in the world for surviving cancer or a heart attack, while paying no more than the average for their health care.

These are among the key findings of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in its annual check-up of health care among developed countries.

In a result that underlines warnings from the AMA and other health groups about the increasing dangers posed by the nation’s expanding waistline, the OECD’s Health at a Glance 2013 report found that Australians are among the fattest people on the planet, with 28.3 per cent of adults classified as obese, fourth behind the United States (36.5 per cent), Mexico (32.4 per cent), and New Zealand (28.4 per cent).

Being significantly overweight is not just uncomfortable – a recent Global Burden of Disease study indicated that it may have serious health implications, particularly when associated with the consumption of fatty and sugary foods. The study found that 10 per cent of burden of disease in Australia is related to poor diet, particularly insufficient consumption of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and too much salt.

Not only were Australians more likely to be fatter than most, the OECD report showed that they were also more likely to be taking antidepressants or statins.

It found that Australians pop more cholesterol-lowering pills than anywhere else in the developed world.

The OECD reported that the daily dose of statins in Australia was 137 per 1000 people, markedly higher than second-placed United Kingdom (130 per 1000) and well above the OECD average of 91 per 1000.

The use of cholesterol-lowering medication in Australia has grown remarkably – the daily dose was about 45 per 1000 in 2000.

The OECD speculated that national variation in the extent of statins use could be only partly explained by differences in population cholesterol levels, and that it was probable that “differences in clinical guidelines for the control of bad cholesterol also play a role”.

 Similarly, Australia’s high use of anti-depressants could be partially explained by “the extension of the set of indications of some antidepressants to milder forms of depression, generalised anxiety disorders or social phobia,” the Organisation suggested.

Its analysis found that Australians took a daily dose of 89 antidepressants per 1000 people, second only to Iceland (106 per 1000) and closed to double the OECD average of 56 per 1000).

Acknowledging the debate about the risks of over-diagnosis, the OECD noted that “these extensions have raised concerns about appropriateness”.

But it said there may be other explanations as well, including the greater intensity and duration of treatment, and changes in attitudes that encouraged more people to seek help.

While Australians are fatter and popping more pills than the average, they enjoy some of the longest lives in the developed world, and life expectancy at birth has now reached 82 years – almost two years above the OECD average.

In addition, the country’s health bill is relatively modest.

The OECD found Australia spent just 8.9 per cent of gross domestic product on health care in 2011, below the developed country average of 9.3 per cent and virtually half of the United State’s massive 17.7 per cent expenditure.

In purchasing power parity terms, Australia spent $US3800 per capita on health care in 2011, marginally above the OECD average of $US3322 and the United Kingdom’s $US3405, but far short of the US’s $US8508 outlay.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 02 Dec 2013