By Tom Westbrook
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Cancer has become Australia's biggest killer, overtaking heart disease for the first time to take more lives than any other ailment, a government health agency said in a report released on Tuesday.
Indigenous Australians also fare much worse than non-indigenous on almost every health score, according to Australia's Health 2016 report, complied by the government's Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and published every two years.
The total number of deaths from cancer was 44,100 in 2013, the institute said, for the first time surpassing the number of deaths from cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and stroke.
Lung cancer is Australia's most common fatal cancer.
"People are now living long enough to get cancer in greater numbers," said Professor Lisa Horvath, director of research at the Chris O'Brien Lifehouse cancer hospital in Sydney.
"Age is the biggest risk factor, apart from smoking, for getting cancer."
Globally, cardiovascular diseases are a bigger killer than cancer, according to the World Health Organization.
Australia is doing better than Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development averages for life expectancy and infant mortality.
But on both counts, the figures for indigenous Australians lag badly behind developed-world averages.
While the gap is narrowing, there remains a profound disparity in health scores between Aborigines, who comprise three percent of Australia's population, and their non-indigenous counterparts.
"What the data shows is just how important it is to bring about faster changes," said Ian Ring, a public health physician and epidemiologist at the University of Wollongong, south of Sydney.
"Housing, education and poverty do have a very great effect on health and in all of those things there's still a long way to go until Aboriginal people can enjoy the same health as the rest of the population."
Indigenous infant mortality rates, a key indicator of the general health of a population, fell 9 percent compared with figures in the previous report.
But at 6 deaths per 1,000 live births, they remain much higher than the non-indigenous infant mortality rate of 3.4 deaths per 1,000 live births.
Growth in health expenditure ran at 3.1 percent in 2012-13, well below the decade's average of 5 percent.
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Robert Birsel)