AIA Australia has partnered with data science specialists Quantium to produce the world’s largest study looking at the links between behavioural characteristics and risks of depression, and the findings show us how Australians can easily eliminate hundreds of thousands of depression incidences each year.

Mental illness and ill-health is one of the fastest growing public health problems in Australia today. Around 45 per cent of Australian adults experience a mental health condition at some point in their life, most commonly as depression, anxiety and substance use disorders.

Enhancing understanding of the complex factors that lead to poor mental health – and identifying solutions that can mitigate the incidence and impact of these factors – is crucial to cultivating a healthy Australian population.

Combining an extensive literature review with an analysis of healthcare claims and physical activity data, the world-first study drew on an initial dataset of over five million lives, amounting to 1.5 billion lines of data in total. The findings offer exciting insights into the many ways that factors like demographics, health, lifestyle and personal circumstance can influence risks of depression.

Taking control of mental health
The AIA Australia and Quantium study substantiates the commonly accepted truth that a correlation exists between happier circumstances and healthier lifestyle choices and lower depression rates. One of the key research insights is that 30 per cent of the factors that commonly influence depression risk are within an individual’s control.

After assessing more than 1,400 factors that could influence mental wellbeing, 14 were identified as being highly significant in increasing risks of depression. The study broke these down into factors both within, and outside of, an individual’s sphere of control.

The most significant depression risk factors that people can’t control include:

  • Gender – depression rates among women are almost double those of men (while biological differences between men and women may explain this difference to some extent, cultural expectations, gender roles, and the underdiagnoses of depression in men are also factors. Further research is needed to more fully understand the difference in depression and depression diagnosis rates between the genders).
  • Age – depression risk is higher among older people (typically because of higher stress levels and the prevalence of other health conditions).
  • Illness – depression rates are 20 times higher among individuals who have previously been diagnosed with depression than those who haven’t. These rates are also 1.5 times higher among those with a seriously ill family member.

The most significant depression risk factors that people can control include:

  • Exercise – people who do more exercise, or who do it at a higher intensity, are less likely to be depressed. Individuals who take 10,000+ steps a day have half the depression rates of those who take 2,000 or less.
  • Sleep patterns – depression rates are around one-third higher among people who sleep less than four hours per night than those who sleep seven to eight hours.
  • Diet – individuals who consume three or more sugary drinks per day increase their risk of depression by 11 per cent.
  • Smoking and alcohol – depression risk is 23 per cent higher among current and ex-smokers than non-smokers, while people who consume high amounts of alcohol increase their depression risk by 14 per cent.

The opportunity to make a difference
Overall, these findings indicate that if we each took small, everyday actions to benefit our overall health – like being more active, sleeping for longer, reducing our sugar intake, stopping smoking and drinking less alcohol – we would reduce our risks of depression and improve our mental wellbeing.

Nationally, if all Australians started practising at least average health habits, we could reduce the number of depression incidences by around 300,000 per year. This equates to 4.7 million recovered working days, representing an annual $3 billion saving for the Australian economy.

“This ground-breaking study has developed a depression risk algorithm that, for the first time, allows the nation to measure the potential economic benefits from improved mental health and wellbeing,” says Damien Mu, CEO and Managing Director of AIA Australia and New Zealand.

“As a starting point, I hope other insurers will use the study to develop and deliver programs to engage and incentivise individuals to improve their mental wellbeing.”

Mr Mu said the experiences of 2020 have so far placed pressure on Australians’ overall stress levels and mental health.

“Due in large part to isolation, health issues, job insecurity and economic uncertainty, we currently find ourselves in a global fight for healthier, longer, better lives. We hope this research can be used by people at risk of depression, and by the wider industry, to improve mental health promotion, prevention and early intervention.”

About the research

A summary of the key findings and insights from the world-leading research on predictive depression factors by AIA Australia in partnership with Quantium Health is available here.

The initial dataset of the AIA Australia and Quantium Health research covers a global population of over five million lives, including healthcare claims incurred over 10 years and equating to 1.5 billion lines of claims and activity data.

The study combined a literature review of the connection between depression and behaviour, as well as analyses of health claim data and biometric-tracked physical activity data – including steps, heart rate and exercise type – sourced from health insurer Discovery Health and the wellbeing program Vitality in South Africa.

Despite the differences between South Africa and Australia (e.g. in demographics, culture and socioeconomic), this data provides a reasonable proxy and starting point for Australia in terms of depression prevalence.

Copyright © 2020 AIA Australia Limited (ABN 79 004 837 861 AFSL 230043). The information in this article is current at the date of issue and may be subject to change. This is general information only, without taking into account factors like the objectives, financial situation, needs or personal circumstances of any individual and is not intended to be financial, legal, tax, medical, nutritional, health, fitness or other advice.

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