Australia has just been dubbed the seventh-healthiest country in the world, making it one of the only English-speaking nations to edge into the top 10.
The 2019 Bloomberg Index ranked 169 nations, with Spain taking out top spot, while fellow Mediterranean frontrunner, Italy, dropped down to second place.
Japan was the best-performing Asian country, in fourth place. Rounding out the top 10 were: Iceland (third), Switzerland (fifth), Sweden (sixth), Singapore (eighth), Norway (ninth) and Israel (10th).
Other countries to make the top 20 included Canada (16th), New Zealand (18th), the United Kingdom (19th) and Ireland (20th).
Meanwhile, the United States came in at 35, behind Chile and Costa Rica, which tied at 33.
Global Burden of Disease research group expert, Melbourne University’s Laureate Professor Alan Lopez, wasn’t surprised by Australia’s high ranking, particularly when compared to the US.
“Firstly, tobacco control has been more effective than in the US,” he told The New Daily. “We have much more effective health promotion in countries such as Australia.”
But, the main difference between Australia and the US, he said, is equal access to health services.
Professor of Global Health at Monash University Jane Fisher said Australia has one of the best health systems in the world.
“We have Medicare which does provide everyone with access to primary health care and also to hospital-based services, especially for emergencies and care for acute illnesses,” Professor Fisher told The New Daily.
For the Bloomberg Index, countries were assessed according to a ‘health score’, based on life expectancy, infant health and risk of disease or injury.
Australia has consistently scored well in terms of low infant mortality rates, and boasts a relatively high life expectancy – at 80.0 years for men and 84.6 years for women.
Tobacco smoking rates have also been steadily declining in Australia, from 22.3 per cent in 2001 to 14.7 per cent in 2014-15, according to ABS data.
Australia also scored top points for environmental factors, such as access to clean water, air and sanitation.
The bad news
Despite our good standing, Australia fell two spots since the last Index was published in 2017 – with penalties imposed for lifestyle factors such as obesity.
“In Australia, the four big factors that drive cardiovascular disease and overall mortality would be tobacco smoking, obesity, high blood pressure – which is of course related to tobacco and obesity – and alcohol,” Professor Lopez said.
“If you want to improve Australia’s health dramatically, then focus on controlling these four risk factors.
Though smoking rates are declining, this was still a big concern, Professor Lopez added.
“Fifteen per cent of Australians smoke every day, and if you smoke you have a three times higher risk of dropping dead at any age.”
Professor Fisher added that other key areas to address included death and injuries from motor vehicle accidents and self-harm.
Deaths by family violence was also a predominant cause of death in women, particularly those under the age of 44 years, she added.
“If you compare us internationally, we probably have lower domestic violence rates than other countries, but we have too many in my opinion,” Professor Fisher said.
What about healthy eating?
Some studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet favoured by Spaniards and Italians could be the secret behind their longevity and heart health.
Public health nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton said Australians tend to consume fewer whole foods, and more unhealthy fats, compared to our European peers.
“The Australian diet has lower consumption of vegetables, legumes and fruit than diets in either Spain or Italy,” she told The New Daily.
But, Dr Stanton warned that comparing countries by healthy eating patterns can be “dicey” and largely depends on how much weight you attribute to other health determinants.
For example, obesity is much higher in Spain than Italy (which was ranked below Spain in the Index).
And Australia’s smoking rate (14.7 per cent) is also far better than in Spain (34 per cent) and Italy (21.4 per cent).
“European countries are moving away from traditional diets to embrace more fast food and processed items. However, sales of these items remain lower than in Australia,” Dr Stanton said.