The fact that health is fundamental to our quality of life is inescapable, but as Canadians, how healthy are we? Are we getting healthier or are we failing to improve? And how do we know? One way comes from the Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO) of Canada whose report, “Health Status of Canadians 2016” provides many answers to these questions.
Calculating the health of a country’s economy is relatively simple: what is their Gross Domestic Product (GDP)? Add in a few other measures and the picture becomes relatively clear and understandable. That is not the case for health, but the strategy is similar: look at a range of indicators that reflect the overall health of a group say Canadians, while building a snapshot of the whole population.
If there is a single indicator such as the GDP, it might be life expectancy at birth. Unfortunately, there is so much more we need to know especially as this one measure can vary widely. Instead, public health research uses a collection of indicators to monitor the health status of a population. This can help us to understand the real picture and provide a better view of our overall health.
The CPHO’s report tells us that almost 90 per cent of Canadians report having good to excellent health. Great! But we can’t stop there. There are also worrying trends. For example, over a decade to 2011 the proportion of Canadians living with Type 2 diabetes has almost doubled from 6% to 10%. This is a good indicator of decreasing health because it reflects a higher proportion of people with unhealthy diets, lower physical activity and higher rates of being overweight and obesity. In turn, these are all associated with higher rates of kidney problems, cardiovascular disease and stroke.
The report tells us that some Canadians are not as healthy as others or are at higher risk for poor health outcomes. In 2008/2010, more than half of First Nations households on reserve reported not having access to enough safe, affordable and nutritious food. In 2011, almost a third of women single-parent households reported living in housing that was not adequate, not affordable or not suitable. And in 2014 tuberculosis was almost 50 times higher in the Inuit population than in the Canadian population overall.
The CPHO report is sorted into three sections. The first is, how healthy are we? Which includes six measures: Life Expectancy, Low Birth Weight, Perceived Health, Community Belonging, Perceived Mental Health. The other sections include: What is influencing our health? Also, How are we unhealthy? We will discuss these in future articles. For now, we look here at one measure, life expectancy at birth.
This seemingly simple measure is complicated by many factors including genetics, lifestyle, diet, access to healthcare, education and income, and rates of diseases and conditions. In 2012, the average life expectancy at birth in Canada was 82 years. But this in itself is only an average. Over two decades from 1991, men’s life expectancy went from 75 to 79 years and women’s from 79 to 84 years. Gender is obviously a factor, but so is income which is related to life expectancy. And if we consider indigenous populations, we find that they tend to have lower life expectancy than non-indigenous groups.
Understanding how we are healthy and what threatens that health, makes this an important conversation. Read the CPHO report and learn more about health indicators.
Written by Dr. Paul Martiquet, Medical Health Officer for the Sunshine Coast and Powell River.