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Canada has made considerable progress in the health of its population over the last few decades. There has been a steady increase in life expectancy—due in part to repeated success in the battle against infectious diseases—as well as a decline in the number of deaths caused by respiratory diseases and falling infant mortality.

There is also good news about lifestyles and healthy behaviour. Fewer Canadians are smoking regularly, and more of them are active in their free time.

Still, many problems continue to affect Canadians’ health. Nutrition is one area where there is room for improvement: most Canadians consume too much salt. Obesity and activity limitations due to chronic conditions are also common among Canadians. And cardiovascular disease and cancer remain the leading causes of death in Canada.

Healthy Canadians

Most Canadians today consider themselves to be in good or excellent health. In 2005, 60% of Canadians said their health was either very good or excellent. The figure for those aged 20 to 34 was 70%; it was 40% for seniors.

Life expectancy at birth was 80 years in 2005, compared with 78 years in 1995. A girl born in 2005 can expect to live 83 years; a boy can expect to live 78 years. The difference in average lifespan between the sexes has narrowed recently, from 6 years in 1995 to 5 years in 2005.

Some health disparities and concerns

There are significant disparities in health across the Canadian population. For example, in northern areas where the Inuit live (Nunavut, Nunavik, Inuvialuit region and Nunatsiavut), life expectancy in 2001 was 67 years, about the same as in developing countries such as the Dominican Republic, Egypt and Guatemala.

In the 1990s, life expectancy at birth in areas where the Inuit live did not increase as it did in the rest of Canada. In fact, it declined by one year: the average life expectancy for both sexes combined was 68 years in 1991.

The level of obesity in the Canadian population—using measured height and weight of an individual to calculate the body mass index (BMI)—is an increasing concern. In 2005, 12% of adults were obese and 27% were overweight. Over the past 30 years, the BMI has increased for both adults and children. The rates for Aboriginal people were generally higher than for the Canadian population as a whole. A study of Aboriginal people aged 19 to 50 in Ontario and the western provinces (excluding reserves) found that, in 2004, they were 2.5 times more likely to be obese or overweight as their non-Aboriginal contemporaries.

More have a disability

A growing number of Canadians today are suffering from limitations that affect their day-to-day activities. In 2006, 4.4 million Canadians who were in a household had activity limitations. That is a disability rate of 14%, up from 12% in 2001, when about 3.6 million people reported activity limitations.

Population aging may account for some of the increase. Another factor may be greater social acceptance of reporting disabilities.

Limitations associated with pain and mobility or agility problems are the most common types of disabilities affecting people aged 15 and older. Nearly 3 million Canadians aged 15 and older, or 11% of that age group, reported one of those conditions in 2006.

More are practising healthy behaviours

Practising healthy habits such as engaging in regular physical activity, avoiding smoking and not consuming too much salt is generally good for people’s health.

From 2000/2001 to 2005, the proportion of Canadians aged 12 and older who were active or moderately active during their free time increased from 43% to 52%.

Walking is the physical activity that Canadians engage in most during their free time. Recreational activities also include gardening, doing exercises at home, swimming, bicycling, running, dancing and weightlifting.

People who are active in their free time are more likely to rate their health as either very good or excellent. Active people also report lower levels of stress than less active people, and they are less likely to have high blood pressure or to be overweight or obese.

From 2000/2001 to 2007, the proportion of Canadians aged 12 and older who smoked daily or occasionally dropped by 4 percentage points, from 26% to 22%.

The proportion of non-smokers aged 12 and older exposed to second-hand smoke at home fell as well, from 10.5% to 7.4% from 2003 to 2007, while over the same period, the number of smokers asked to refrain from smoking in the house increased from 56% to 67%

Despite these improvements in behaviour, most Canadians consume much more salt in a typical day than is recommended, according to the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) on nutrition. Excessive salt consumption is linked with an increase in the risk of undesirable health effects, such as high blood pressure.

In 2004, 85% of men and 60% of women aged 19 to 70 in Canada exceeded the maximum daily intake of 2,300 mg of sodium recommended by the Institute of Medicine, an independent American organization.

The average salt intake of Canadians as a whole in 2004 was 3,092 mg a day, one-third more than the maximum recommended by the organization.

The amount of salt added to food was not measured in the CCHS, nor was it included in the calculation of daily sodium intake. However, the average daily dose of sodium for people who add salt to their meals was 3,396 mg, compared with 2,927 mg for people who never add salt.

Deaths on the rise as the population ages

The population is aging, so the number of deaths in Canada has been increasing steadily in recent years, up to 226,584 deaths in 2004. Deaths due to cardiovascular disease and cancer made up 62% of all deaths in 2004.

Cardiovascular disease has been the leading cause of death in Canada over the past 25 years. In 1979, cardiovascular disease was responsible for 47% of all deaths in Canada; by 2004, the proportion had fallen to 32%.

Cancer has been the second leading cause of death in Canada over the past 25 years. From 1979 to 2004, the proportion of deaths due to cancer rose from 23% to 30%.