Unhealthy Russians live short and risky lives

Turn the clock back a century, and imagine you are in Russia. You are a 16-year-old male, struggling to live in an impoverished and backward world. The chances are only one in three that you are literate. Fate has some ghastly surprises in store which will claim the lives of countless millions of your countrymen, and perhaps your own: the First World War, revolution, civil war, famine, Stalin's purges, and a second global conflict in which millions more Russians will die.

And yet: despite all this slaughter, demographers believe your chances of survival to the age of 60 are slightly higher than those of your counterparts at the end of the 20th century.

A report compiled by a presidential commission in Moscow shows that between 1889 and today, 16-year-old males had a 56 per cent chance of reaching the age of 60. According to the researchers, modern mortality rates have shaved 2 per cent off those odds. The findings are symptoms of a crisis which has engulfed Russia since the collapse in the Soviet Union. Its population dropped by 350,000 in 1996 and its death rate is higher than any in Europe or the United States, and above most in Africa and Asia.

The Population Reference Service, a US research firm, estimates Russia's 147 million population will drop to 123 million in the next 33 years. The causes are multiple: the collapse of the state health system; an epidemic of heart disease accelerated by smoking, a terrible diet and rampant alcoholism; an unhealthy environment, and dismal safety standards.

To these trends, the report, compiled by the Commission on Women, Family and Demography, adds some depressing details: the odds of dying of accidental poisoning in Russia are 20 times higher than they are in the US; and men are 20 times more likely to die through murder than in Western Europe.