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Baltic States: Life Expectancy Of Males Plunges

  • Stuart Parrott

London, 31 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- World Health Organization (WHO) surveys show that the life expectancy of Baltic males has plunged since the late 1980s owing to a range of factors, including falling living standards, worsened nutrition and rising crime.

The situation is worst in Latvia, where male mortality from heart disease and suicides is now among the highest in Europe.

The life expectancy at birth of male Latvians fell in 1994 to 58.4 years. This compares with 76.5 years (men and women) in West European countries and 71.2 in other Central and E of men who smoke (about 50 per East European nations.

A summary of the health situation in the Baltic countries is given in special reports recently issued by the Copenhagen regional headquarters of the WHO. They are entitled: "Health care systems in transition."

Life expectancy, of course, has fallen across the former Soviet Union in the transitional chaos that has marked the fall of communism. But the fall in Latvia has been particularly sharp, and there is a wide gender gap. Life expectancy at birth for Latvian women is 72.3 years.

According to WHO, more than 65 percent of Latvian men are tobacco users. This is the highest percentage of smokers in a league table of 38 mainly European countries (figures refer to early 1990s). Smoking prevalence is also high in Turkey, Croatia, Serbia, Poland, and Bulgaria, where about 50 percent or more of males use tobacco.

In contrast, between 25 and 40 percent of male adults in Western Europe smoke. Tobacco use is falling in Western and Northern European countries, but is stable or rising in the eastern and southern countries.

Latvian men also figure high on the suicide league table which has long been headed by Hungary and Finland. (The suicide rate in Hungary is almost three times the European average.) High suicide rates often reflect cultures where heavy drinking is prevalent.

The health of Estonian males has also got worse since 1990 with a rise in death rates due to heart disease, accidents and poisoning.

In 1994, life expectancy at birth for Estonian men was 61.2 years, having declined from 66.5 in 1988 (the figures for Estonian women are 73.2 and 74.9 respectively.) Just under 50 percent of Estonian men smoked cigarettes or other forms of tobacco. The increasing incidence of poisoning is thought to reflect higher suicide rates.

Male life expectancy figures for Lithuania are not listed, but WHO experts say that they have fallen there, too. In the league table of 38 mainly European countries, Lithuania comes eighth in terms of the percentage of men who smoke (about 50 percent).

The fall in life expectancy, not just in the Baltics but in most of the republics of the former Soviet Union, also reflects reduced spending on health care, a fall in living standards (since reversed in some places), poor nutrition, rising alcohol consumption and worsening crime.

But tobacco is the main killer. The WHO estimates that smoking is responsible for 90 percent of lung cancers and some 50 percent of bladder and renal pelvis cancers. It is also responsible for a large proportion of oral, laryngeal and oeseophaegeal cancers.

WHO experts say preventing disease, as well as trying to cure it, should be emphasized as the way to improve health. They say: "Lifestyle factors, particularly smoking, alcohol and dietary habits, need improvement. The elimination of smoking would result in significant reductions in cancer and in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases."