Study reveals Illawarra residents are more anxious and obese than national average

Study reveals Illawarra residents are more anxious and obese than national average

A study of more than 150,000 Illawarra residents has shown the region has higher than national average rates of chronic diseases such as obesity, hypertension and anxiety disorders.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Wollongong and Illawar­ra Shoalhaven Medicare Local and published in BMC Public Health yesterday (2 July), examined data collected from 17 general practices in the Illawarra region over a 24-month period.

The findings showed that 65.9 per cent of Illawarra residents are obese or overweight compared to the national average of 63.4 per cent. Anxiety disorders were also more prevalent, affecting 5 per cent of locals compared to the national average of 3.8 per cent. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, rates were also inflated, with 11.9 per cent of Illawarra residents affected compared to the national average of 10.4 per cent.

Public health researcher and co-author of the study Associate Professor Karen Charlton said the figures are concerning. 

“These figures are ringing alarm bells.  We need to be looking at reasons why residents of the Illawarra and Shoalhaven are less healthy overall than the rest of the Australian population.”

“What is most concerning is that more than a third of local residents have body weights in the obese range, compared to the national average of 28.3 per cent. Both obesity and hypertension are major risk factors for heart disease, and both of these conditions are preventable, by having healthier eating habits and partaking in more physical activity.” 

However, Professor Charlton said the study also showed the prevalence of age-related asthma in the Illawarra was lower at 8 per cent compared to the national average of 10 per cent.

The study follows on from a 2013 pilot study undertaken in a single large General Practice in 2012, which was designed to test whether the data could easily by extracted from existing software.

“We know that, in 2011-12 in Australia the percentage of adults who saw a GP in the preceding months ranged between 74-86 per cent, with our local catchment area having the highest percentage nationally,” Professor Charlton said.

“The number of patient interactions that were analysed in our larger study represents almost 40 per cent of the regional population. We are pretty confident that our figures provide an accurate picture of the health of our region.”

Mr Abhijeet Ghosh, lead author of the paper and Population Health & Workforce Coordinator at Medicare Local, said having access to information on the health conditions of communities at the regional local government level, is useful for accurate evidence-based population health planning and primary care services delivery.

“General Practitioners are the first source of referral within the larger health care system. Our study has shown that routinely collected data on the reasons people visit their GPs provides an ideal opportunity for effective monitoring of chronic health conditions within the local population,” he said.

Mr Ghosh said he was excited to have been able to show that it is both practical and feasible to extract this kind of information on patient-doctor interactions on a large scale.

“This innovative study methodology has the potential to be rolled out nationally, to provide an efficient, region specific yet comprehensive chronic disease surveillance system to monitor the trends of major health conditions of the entire Australian population, Mr Ghosh said, adding that other countries such as France, Italy and Canada have successfully implemented such approaches. 

The Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute based at UOW is offering a free service as part of the HealthTrack study aimed at helping residents develop a healthier lifestyle and reduce their weight.  The study will run for 12 months and involves regular visits to the Clinical Trials Unit for health coaching and assessments. For more information or to get involved visit: or phone 1800 194 717. 

Media contacts: Associate Professor Karen Charlton, + 61 2 4221 4754 or, or Mr Abhijeet Ghosh +61 2 4220 7600 or