Vienna, October 28 – The financial crisis in the Russian Federation has pushed up the already high rates of mortality from heart and circulatory diseases there to third world levels, according to medical experts. And that development combined with other trends likely makes the demographic future of Russia even bleaker than had been thought.
Yevgeny Chazov, one of Russia’s senior specialists on heart disease, told a Duma hearing that “as a result of the difficult psycho-social circumstances” and “stress” from “instability in the country, “ 1.3 million people – 56 percent of the total number of deaths there – now die from heart disease (www.newizv.ru/news/2008-10-28/100653/).
At the hearing, other experts pointed out that Russia now has a mortality rate – 14.6 per thousand per year – that puts it “in one rank with the countries of Central Africa,” a situation that means “one in every three” Russians will die before reaching pension age and that both the size of the workforce and the overall population of the country will continue to decline.
But if many speakers blamed the financial crisis or personal behavioral choices like smoking or alcohol consumption, one, Aleksandr Baranov, the vice president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, was prepared to blame the Russian government. Medical science knows “how to lower mortality,” he said, “but we haven’t received an order from the powers that be.”
In a survey of expert opinion on this subject in advance of the Duma hearing, the Moscow newspaper “Trud” concluded that “the demographic situation [in Russia] over the next few years will only get worse,” although it cautioned that no one should blame the financial crisis for falling birthrates (www.trud.ru/issue/article.php?id=200810242010802).
Sergey Sakharov, the deputy director of the Moscow Institute of Demography at the Higher School of Economics, said that the small positive gains in fertility over the last few years are going to slow or even be reversed soon. And Igor Beloborodov said that the situation will become “worse.”
The recent small improvement in the birthrate “is not connected with economic stimuli,” Kirill Danishevsky of the Open Health Institute said. And any decline will not be entirely the result of such stimuli in the opposite direction because decisions about having children are made over a longer period of time.
But neither he nor the other experts with whom “Trud” spoke were prepared to “exclude the influence of the [current financial and economic] crisis on fertility,” although all of them insisted that it was unlikely to be “decisive” in changing the basic downward trend lines observed over most of the last two decades.
There is one thing that could help improve both fertility and mortality rates, Danishevsky said. If Russians were to drink less as a result of the crisis, even cutting consumption by one liter of pure alcohol per year, that alone would reduce mortality by three to five percent, a more significant achievement than any the Russian government has had since Soviet times.
An example of the ways in which an economic crisis can have that positive effect on public health, he said, is provided by Georgia. There in the mid-1990s, incomes fell so far that people cut back on the purchase of wine and thus the consumption of alcohol. “Immediately,” the Russian public health specialist said, there was a decline in mortality rates.
But that is hardly likely to be the case in Russia. In Georgia, people stopped buying expensive wines, many of which were being exported for hard currency. But “with us,” Danishevsky said, “it is always possible to find inexpensive alcohol.” Indeed, the Russian government now as has usually been the case in the past appears committed to ensuring that remains true.