Background: Significant variation exists in published Aboriginal mortality and life expectancy (LE) estimates due to differing and evolving methodologies required to correct for inadequate recording of Aboriginality in death data, under-counting of Aboriginal people in population censuses, and unexplained growth in the Aboriginal population attributed to changes in the propensity of individuals to identify as Aboriginal at population censuses. The objective of this paper is to analyse variation in reported Australian Aboriginal mortality in terms of LE and infant mortality rates (IMR), compared with all Australians.
Methods: Published data for Aboriginal LE and IMR were obtained and analysed for data quality and method of estimation. Trends in reported LE and IMR estimates were assessed and compared with those in the entire Australian population.
Results: LE estimates derived from different methodologies vary by as much as 7.2 years for the same comparison period. Indirect methods for estimating Aboriginal LE have produced LE estimates sensitive to small changes in underlying assumptions, some of which are subject to circular reasoning. Most indirect methods appear to under-estimate Aboriginal LE. Estimated LE gaps between Aboriginal people and the overall Australian population have varied between 11 and 20 years. Latest mortality estimates, based on linking census and death data, are likely to over-estimate Aboriginal LE. Temporal LE changes by each methodology indicate that Aboriginal LE has improved at rates similar to the Australian population overall. Consequently the gap in LE between Aboriginal people and the total Australian population appears to be unchanged since the early 1980s, and at the end of the first decade of the 21st century remains at least 11-12 years. In contrast, focussing on the 1990-2010 period Aboriginal IMR declined steeply over 2001-08, from more than 12 to around 8 deaths per 1,000 live births, the same level as Australia overall in 1993-95. The IMR gap between Aboriginal people and the total Australian population, while still unacceptable, has declined considerably, from over 8 before 2000 to around 4 per 1,000 live births by 2008.
Conclusions: Regardless of estimation method used, mortality and LE gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people are substantial, but remain difficult to estimate accurately.