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Poland: Post-Communist Changes Result In Healthier, Longer Lives

Washington, 15 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- One of Poland's leading public health campaigners has published evidence in a leading international medical journal suggesting that a mixture of government policy and free market economics might help people live longer and healthier.

Dr. Witold Zatonski of Warsaw's Curie Memorial Cancer Center believes that a recent decrease in the Polish death rate for heart disease and stroke is due to radical changes in the average Pole's daily diet, changes that were compelled by post-communist economic policies.

Zatonski's hypothesis is not new. He outlined his views in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty last May. However, Zatonski has now completed a statistical analysis of Polish death rates and published an interpretation of the results in the British Medical Journal. Publication requires vetting by an author's medical peers and is an important step for widespread acceptance of a theory.

The article was co-authored by Anthony McMichael of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and John Powles of the Cambridge Institute of Public Health. In it, Zatonski contends that a decrease in the amount of fat in the Polish diet, a change in the type of fat eaten by Poles and an increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables are the main reasons fewer Polish men and women are dying from diseases of the heart and circulatory systems.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in Europe and North America. However, the death rate from heart disease has leveled off in Western Europe, the U.S. and Canada, but it is still on the increase in the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Zatonski notes that from 1960 to 1991, the death rate in Poland from diseases of the circulatory system was high and increasing. Since 1994, however, he writes that Poland has become one of the few health success stories in Eastern Europe, with particular improvement in the health of men and women between the ages of 45 and 64.

One of the leading causes of heart disease is a buildup of plaque deposits that clog and eventually block the arteries supplying blood to the heart. A number of factors, including family history, smoking and over-consumption of fatty foods, can influence the development of blocked arteries.

Family history cannot be changed, and in his article Zatonski rules out changes in smoking habits because there was no big drop in the number of Polish smokers. He says, however, that after 1991 consumption of fruits and vegetables doubled in Poland. At the same time, there was a significant drop in the consumption of animal fats, which are considered unhealthy, and a big switch to the use of dietary fats obtained from plants and vegetables, which experts say are much healthier.

Zatonski says the changes in the Polish diet are the result of a post-communist government policy that ended subsidies for animal fats and opened markets to imports of fruits and vegetables. He contends this is the only adequate explanation for the rapid change in Poland's health status, a change he calls unprecedented in peacetime.