Health Status of Canadians 2016: Report of the Chief Public Health Officer - What is a health indicator?

What is a health indicator?

In this Chief Public Health Officer's report, select health indicators collectively provide a concise snapshot of the health of our country. Being healthy or sick are concepts that are well understood. However, providing a picture at a point in time of the health of Canadians as a population is a complicated task. Unlike gross domestic product (GDP), which is used to gauge the health of a country's economy, there is no universal measure that tells us about the health of a populace. Perhaps the closest is life expectancy.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of health measures available. Rather than reporting on a very lengthy list, health indicators are selected that each "indicate" or are linked to multiple health measures. It is an informative way to gauge the health of a population because even a simple health measure about a specific disease can provide clues to the broader population context. For example, rates of type 2 diabetes in a population show not only the state of the disease itself, but also indirectly reflect on other factors, such as obesity, diet and physical activity, that all play a role in the development of this disease. Diabetes also increases the risk to develop other health conditions, including kidney problems, cardiovascular disease and stroke. Knowing the rates of diabetes can also indirectly provide us with a sense of what may be happening to rates of other diseases.

Indicators can be straightforward, such as the rate of a specific disease in a population, or composite, like the Early Development Instrument (EDI) which measures school readiness in young children by combining responses to over 100 questions. Composite indicators can be more difficult to understand or interpret, so all of the indicators selected for in this report are simple and practical measures. Each indicator is calculated in a specific way, such as through self-reported surveys. Each also has limitations of what it can tell us, including how it may or may not be compared. As such, the health indicators included in this report each stand alone. Taken together, they speak to important factors that shape our lives toward health or illness.

Our social context greatly influences how healthy we are. Our choices, level of education and income, and whether or not we have access to adequate housing and food all contribute to the health status of our population.

To tell the story of the health status of Canadians, health indicators have been grouped into the following three sections: "How healthy are we?"; "What is influencing our health?" and, "How are we unhealthy?"

For more information on health indicators:

Describing Canada's population

In January 2016, Canada's population exceeded 36 million for the first time.Footnote 1 Canada's population is concentrated in urban centres and is diverse, growing, and aging.Footnote 1-4

Population characteristics can help explain or anticipate the health and well-being of citizens. For example, arthritis, dementia and some cancers, are linked to aging. In areas with an aging population, it would be expected that rates of these diseases would be increasing.Footnote 5

Did you know?

As of July 1st, 2015, 25 million or 7 in 10 Canadians were living in a city of at least 100,000 residents where half of the population lived in the city's core. Footnote 6

Over time

Canada's population has increased by 57% over the past 40 years and 24% over the past 20 years (see Figure 1)Footnote 2.

Figure 1: Canada's growing populationFootnote 2
Figure 1
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This image depicts Canada's growing population. In 1975, Canada's population was 23 million. In 1995, it was 29 million and in 2016, it was 36 million.

By sex

In 2016, men and women were equally represented in Canada's population.Footnote 1

  • Men: 17,995,581 (49.6%)
  • Women: 18,290,844 (50.4%)

By age

In 2015, there were more Canadians over the age of 65 years than under the age of 15 years, for the first time.Footnote 2

  • 14 years and younger = 5,754,477
  • 15 to 64 years = 24,307,226
  • 65 years and older = 5,786,907

Indigenous populations

In 2011, approximately 1.4 million or 4% of Canadians identified themselves as Indigenous. Among these Canadians, 61% self-identified as First Nations, 32% as Métis and 4% as Inuit.Footnote 7 Indigenous populations were significantly younger than the general Canadian population with almost 50% being under the age of 25 years compared to 30% of the non-Indigenous population.Footnote 7

Foreign-born populations

In 2011, approximately 7 million people living in Canada identified themselves as foreign-born, which represented 21% of the total population.Footnote 8 17% arrived in Canada between 2006 and 2011 with 57% being from Asia and 14% from Europe.Footnote 8

International comparison

Canada's annual population growth rate was the highest among G7 countries in 2012/2014 at 1% (see Figure 2)Footnote 9. Canada's population is not growing as quickly as in the past.Footnote 2

Figure 2: Annual population growth rate in G7 countries, 2012/2014Footnote 9
Figure 2
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Bar chart showing the change in annual population growth rate in G7 countries in 2012 or 2014.

  • Canada = 1.1%
  • United States = 0.7%
  • United Kingdom = 0.6%
  • France = 0.4%
  • Germany = 0.3%
  • Italy = 0.1%
  • Japan = -0.2%

Notes to the reader

  • The estimated population represents the number of Canadians whose usual place of residence is in Canada. It also includes any Canadians staying in a dwelling in Canada on Census Day and having no usual place of residence elsewhere in Canada, as well as non-permanent residents (e.g., a person and his or her family who is lawfully in Canada on a temporary basis under the authority of a valid document such as a work permit, study permit, Minister's permit or refugee).Footnote 1
  • Indigenous populations consist of First Nations, Métis and Inuit.
  • G7 countries include seven of the world's industrialized countries, namely the United States, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Canada, that form an informal discussion group and economic partnership.

For more information on Canada's population, please see:

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