05/24/2012 10:11 EDT | Updated 07/24/2012 05:12 EDT

Rates of premature deaths in Canada halved over last 30 years: report

TORONTO - A new report says the rate of premature deaths in Canada has plummeted over the past 30 years, a result of social policies like seat belt laws and improvements in disease prevention and treatment.

The rate of Canadians who die before age 75 — the cut off health policy analysts use to define premature death — has almost halved in the three decades covered by the study, released today by Canadian Institutes for Health Information.

In 1979, 373 out of every 100,000 Canadian deaths could have been averted or prevented, through timely care or disease prevention. By 2008, the number had dropped to 185 per 100,000 people.

"It's a good news story," said Joanne Hader, manager of health indicators for CIHI.

There have been enormous societal changes over that period, and huge biomedical advances.

Strict drinking and driving legislation, seat belt laws and bike helmet requirements (where they exist), graduated licences for new drivers — all have come into effect over the time studied. It's now the standard for vehicles to be equipped with airbags.

Over the same period, medical science has developed a deeper understanding of the causes of cardiovascular disease and how it can be avoided, and societal attitudes have shifted towards placing a premium on healthy eating and regular exercise.

Smoking has become an affliction of a minority; laws and bylaws ban smokers from indulging in the workplace, on public transit, in bars and restaurants, even in cars transporting children in some locations.

Cancer screening programs have become widespread and cancer treatment regimens have improved significantly.

Hader said the Canadian numbers follow international trends, noting last week Britain released a report showing the same type of trend.

The report breaks down premature deaths into those that could not be avoided with the current state of science and avoidable deaths. Unavoidable deaths, which make up only about 30 per cent of the premature deaths, include those caused by diseases such as multiple sclerosis or cystic fibrosis, for which there are currently no cures.

The report said Canada has the third lowest rate of avoidable deaths among G7 countries. Only Japan and France have rates that are lower.

Over the study period, avoidable premature deaths among men dropped by a whopping 55 per cent, compared with only a 43 per cent reduction in women.

"This is actually all about the men. This is the motor vehicle and the occupational injuries and that type of thing, where the rates have always been higher among men," Hader said.

Despite closing the gap somewhat, men are still more likely than women to die of an avoidable premature death, the report shows.