Chronic disease risk factors a ticking time bomb
Australians are being urged not to ignore their long-term risk of chronic disease during COVID-19, as a new report highlights overweight and obesity as a major risk factor affecting two in three Australian adults.
The new Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report Australia’s Health 2020 shows that, while Australians are living longer, some risk factors like overweight and obesity have been steadily increasing over the past few decades.
Sharon McGowan Chair of the Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance said this trend was particularly concerning given the sheer number of people affected, including one in four children.
“We know that overweight and obesity increase risk of many chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease, chronic kidney disease and many cancers. But, more recently we have also discovered that obesity increases risk of severe disease from COVID-19,” Ms McGowan said.
Smoking also increases risk of severe disease from COVID-19, as does having a chronic condition or multiple comorbidities.
“While the world is focusing on COVID-19, it is clear that chronic diseases and their risk factors cannot be overlooked,” said Ms McGowan.
The new report highlighted that one in two Australians have a chronic disease. Each day 400 people are diagnosed with cancer and 100 have a stroke. Other sources show that 280 people develop diabetes each day.
Certain population groups are disproportionately affected by chronic diseases and their risk factors. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are two times as likely to have coronary heart disease compared to non-Indigenous Australians, and more than three times as likely to die from type 2 diabetes or chronic kidney disease, or have a stroke 10 years younger than non-Indigenous Australians. Some risk factors, like smoking and obesity, are more prevalent in people living in rural and remote and/or lower socioeconomic areas compared to those in major cities or higher socioeconomic areas. Ms McGowan said that much chronic disease burden could be prevented, but the link between risk factors and chronic disease is poorly understood by members of the community.
“Australians should be supported to understand their risk of chronic disease and manage their health before it becomes an emergency,” Ms McGowan said.
The new report shows that one in 15 hospitalisations is potentially preventable and nearly half of these are due to chronic conditions at a cost of $2.3 billion each year. At the same time, the report estimates that more than 80 percent of the population visited their GP last year.
“Primary and community health care centres are ideal places to ask people about their health, conduct risk assessments and provide the right support or intervention to help people manage their risk,” said Ms McGowan.
“With knowledge and support, many risk factors and conditions can be managed out of hospital, providing a better quality of life for Australians, reducing complications and easing the burden on the hospital system.”
Ms McGowan highlighted telehealth (video and phone consultations) and pop-up testing clinics as recent government initiatives to improve access to care for people across Australia during COVID-19.
Ms McGowan said, “If we’ve learned anything from COVID-19, it is that government support for prevention, early detection and intervention can pay huge dividends in reducing the risk of serious conditions and complications.”
“Chronic conditions and their risk factors need the same long-term commitment to population health to prevent a tsunami of disease in the coming months and years.”