Researcher Nick Eberstadt foresaw Russia's impending health crisis as far back as 1981.
Writing that year in the New York Review and using available data — embarrassed Soviet authorities by then had already classified official statistics revealing rising mortality rates —he presented what proved to be an eerily accurate assessment of the unfolding health crisis as well as the factors behind it.
Eberstadt, who now holds the Henry Wendt Chair of Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, anticipated the effects that rising levels of alcohol consumption would have in driving up cardiovascular disease and increasing death rates. He also perceived "far more deadly pitfalls" stemming from pesticide overuse, industrial pollution and poorly constructed nuclear facilities — an especially prophetic observation five years before Chernobyl.
What he interpreted decades ago as a mounting health crisis in a decaying Soviet Union, he now characterizes as a demographic straightjacket in post-Soviet Russia — one that is growing worse with each passing year.
"Despite net immigration since the end of Communism, the Russian Federation's population is nearly seven million people smaller than at the start of 1992," he wrote in October 2008 the Journal of School of Advanced International Studies, a Johns Hopkins University publication.
Despite efforts by Russia's leadership to reverse the trend, the nation now has three deaths for every two births.
The main causes behind this demographic implosion are not infectious diseases but non-communicable diseases, namely cardiovascular diseases largely stemming from Russia's unhealthy but pervasive lifestyle practices, especially alcohol and tobacco use. The British Medical Journal reported in 2005 that deaths from cardiovascular disease, cancer and injuries accounted for 15.2 million lost years of potential life.
Arguably the scariest scenario of all is what may follow if these trends are not reversed. Russia's current population could drop from 142 to 120 million by midcentury — far below the numbers required to control its vast territory.
Aside from the country's heavy alcohol and tobacco consumption, health authorities cite a host of other factors —collapse of the social safety net, lack of highway safeguards, the decline of fruit and vegetable production, sedentary lifestyles and growing obesity levels — as contributing to Russia's demographic decline.
At Auburn University, Dr. Robert Keith, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System nutrition and health specialist and professor of nutrition and food science, says the crisis in Russia underscores the responsibility individual citizens have in keeping themselves healthy, not only for their own sake but for the long-term future of their society.
"Simply put, what this means is that there are fewer healthy people available to carry out all those duties deemed essential to the smooth functioning of society, whether this involves interpreting and administering the law, building and maintaining the public infrastructure, advancing technological achievements through scientific research, providing medical care, or teaching young people," Keith says, adding that "without a healthy workforce, you're not going to operate at peak levels of efficiency."
In fact, researchers have even managed to assign numbers to the problem. For example, the British Medical Journal reported that, in 2005, deaths from cardiovascular disease and diabetes would cost Russia some $11 billion in national income or 1 percent of GDP — a cost that is expected to climb in 2015 to more than $66 billion or 5 percent of GDP.
"If conditions in Russia drive home one reality, it's that there are legions of people unable to do their jobs efficiently because of poor lifestyle habits — habits that, in turn, are contributing to immense losses of money and efficiency," Keith says.
While Americans are light years ahead of Russia in many critical health measures, he says there are still lessons to be gained. Spiking U.S. rates of obesity associated with poor diet and sedentary lifestyles, especially among younger Americans, bear a marked similarity to conditions in Russia. And unless this situation is reversed within the next few years, rising levels of life expectancy in the United States may slow to a crawl and even become reversed.
"We know that obesity is related to a variety of serious conditions, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, strokes, kidney failure and cancers — all diseases that will kill these younger people much earlier in life, unless science uncovers some medical solution to fix it or lifestyles change dramatically," said Keith in a 2003 interview exploring the childhood obesity epidemic.
"What you're seeing in Russia — a steep loss of social capital due primarily to poor lifestyle habits — could happen to some degree here if we don't get our act together."
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