Surprising causes of most deaths on Australia’s beaches

Worried about sharks at the beach? Turns out these fearsome fish are not the biggest killers on Australia’s coastline when it comes to non-drowning deaths.

Instead, depending on a person’s age, it’s more likely that a heart problem or misadventure will lead to mortality, according to research from Surf Life Saving Australia, whose red-and-gold clad patrol teams provide patrol and rescue services for beaches across the country.

More than half of non-drowning deaths in the decade between July 2012 and June 2022 were caused by cardiac-related conditions. These accounted for 319 of the 616 deaths along Australia’s coasts.

Traumatic and collision injuries – such as blunt force trauma – were the next most common cause of death, accounting for fewer than 1 in 6 deaths.

Falls accounted for 1 in 10 fatalities, with marine animal interactions 1 in 20.

But the data has other insights beyond cause of death. Males were far more likely to be killed on the coast; victims in almost 9 out of 10 cases.

And while people aged over 50 account for most deaths, primarily through cardiac conditions, those below the age of 50 are overrepresented in all other mortality cases.

This, the researchers say, is an important consideration when interpreting the data, as deaths from any cause are highest among older people. 

“Our research showed that males were 5.2 times more likely to die than females, with younger populations found to die disproportionately along the coast with the primary causes being falls and traumatic/collision injuries,” says the study’s lead researcher, Sean Kelly.

Kelly and the other SLSA researchers point to those all-cause mortality comparisons. People aged 70+ have 118 times greater all-cause death rate than people aged 16-24.

But when looking at non-drowning coastal deaths, it’s only 6 times greater, highlighting disproportionate deaths among young people in these environments.

They suggest this is due to higher levels of coastal visitation and the type of activities young people participate in. Where a person lives also matters.

“Those living in or visiting rural and remote areas were also found to be at higher risk, largely due to poorer access to services and longer incident response times,” Kelly says.

While sharks are often top-of-mind for those visiting the beach, all marine creatures including sharks and jellyfish only made up 5% of non-drowning deaths and less than 2% of overall coastal deaths.”

The study was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

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