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26.06.2009

Life Expectancy Remains Low

Western visitors to Russia are often struck by what seems to be Russians’ preoccupation with their health. Children are bundled up in hats and snowsuits even in temperatures approaching 20 degrees Celcius, and almost every family has a blood pressure reader and a thermometer at home, along with a cabinet full of medicine. Foreigners may observe that Russians seem to wash their hands very often, and always leave their outdoor footwear at the door in order not to bring dirt and bacteria into the house.

So at first sight it appears that in some respects, Russians are far more concerned with their health than Westerners. Unfortunately, their efforts do not translate into longer life expectancy.

Stastically, the average life expectancy for a Russian male is just 58.8 years, while Russian women live on average for 72.1 years. European men, in comparison, live for an average 75.1 years, while women in Europe live for 80.9 years.

Dr. Yevgeny Zheleznyakov, an expert in non-communicable diseases at the World Health Organization, said that Russia suffers from a lack of “well-known cost-effective interventions which can significantly increase peoples awareness of their health and thus reduce the burden of disease.”

Those interventions include counseling in order to give up smoking, and the promotion of regular physical exercise and a healthy diet, said Zheleznyakov. These interventions are widely applied in Western countries, but not in Russia, he said.

Therefore people in Russia are simply less educated and less aware than Western people about health risks and how to prevent them. This ranges from obesity, heart disease and other chronic diseases to HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases, Zheleznyakov said.

Another problem is that many physicians and other health care workers in Russia are neither trained nor motivated to promote a healthy lifestyle and advise their patients, he said.

Other factors contributing to the lower life expectancy of Russians are chronic stress, environmental pollution, the high prevalence of alcohol abuse (specific to Russia), drug abuse and tobacco use, the unfavorable climate, and high incidence of death due to car accidents and other accidents, Zheleznyakov said.

The number of smokers in Russia is seven percent higher than in European countries, meaning more than one third of the population smokes. Russians also do less sport and physical exercise than Europeans, research conducted by Rus State Pharmaceutical Company showed.

The chances of dying in an accident or violence in Russia is 3.6 times higher than in Western countries, according to research by the Human Ecology and Demography Center at the National Economy Forecast Institute.

The average age of people dying from these causes in Russia is 42.2, while in the West it is 55.7.

Up to 30,000 people die in car accidents annually in Russia, where drivers are not known for their caution or respect for pedestrians and fellow drivers. It was only 18 months ago that the Russian authorities introduced higher fines for driving without a seat belt. Financial punishment proved to be the only effective measure in convincing Russian drivers and their passengers to buckle up. Before that, drivers were even liable to get offended if their passengers fastened their seat belt, taking it as a sign of distrust of their driving skills.

Health and safety standards are practically non existent in Russia in comparison to Western Europe and the U.S., and hundreds of Russians die or are injured every year in accidents barely imaginable for Westerners.

Last year, there were several cases in St. Petersburg alone of people falling into uncovered manholes in the street. While some fell into unmarked holes whose drain covers were missing or not fixed securely and escaped with a broken limb, the unluckier ones fell directly into hot water from pipes that had burst, causing the ground above to give way — often with fatal results.

Other common causes of accidental death are drowning after attempting to go swimming when drunk or after falling through the ice when ice-fishing, falling out of windows and off balconies (again, usually when people are drunk), getting severely injured in street fights, or dying from alcohol poisoning after drinking poor quality homebrew.

Low standards of living and problems in the countrys health system also contribute to Russians poor health, said Zheleznyakov.

There is a strong established link between poverty and chronic diseases, he said. The lower the socioeconomic group, the more it is at risk of developing chronic diseases and dying prematurely from them, including many middle-aged people, he said.

In some cases, this may be because the poor have higher rates of exposure to risk factors such as smoking prevalence and maternal malnutrition, he said.

Russians die far younger than Westerners from the worlds most common illnesses.

The average age of those dying from cardiovascular diseases in Russia is 67.6. In Western countries, that figure is 78.6 years old, according to research by the National Economic Forecast Institute.

The average age of people dying from cancer in Russia is 63.6, while in the West, it is 73.8. The average age of those who die from infection in Russia is 44 years old, and 68.9 in the West.

A weak and inefficient health system and lack of government support and investment in health are also causes of Russias lower life expectancy figures, said Zheleznyakov.

Most Europeans believe that good health is the result of their own efforts on control and prevention, while most Russians believe that good or bad health is determined by nature and it is difficult to do anything about it, a survey conducted recently in Russia showed.

Europeans believe that life cannot be fully enjoyed without taking care of their health, while for Russians, healthcare is stressful. Many Russians get nervous just thinking about visiting the doctor, the research showed.

This attitude is particularly characteristic of Russian men, whose shockingly low life expectancy worries the countrys demographers most of all.

Mens major health problems have to do with heart disease. Russian men are statistically more reluctant to visit the doctor than women, and tend to put it off until the situation becomes critical. As a result, they often have heart attacks and strokes before they receive any medical help.

At the same time, many Russian men smoke, and many more drink heavily or are even alcoholics. Those two factors have a serious detrimental effect on mens health.

Twenty years ago, life expectancy in Russia was higher, possibly partly due to the countrys large-scale involvement in sports at that time.

Twenty to thirty years ago, sport was very popular in the country, especially among children, many of whom attended special sports schools and summer camps. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many sports facilities were closed due to a lack of funding, and today many children are more likely to amuse themselves with computers and TV.

As a result, in recent decades the number of healthy children in Russia has decreased by 32 percent, and five million children have chronic diseases, according to the web site Detsky Sport.



Source:  The St. Petersburg Times

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