Death in the FSU

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Hard-drinking Russian men may be dying young these days, but Russia's much-hyped recent downward spiral in life expectancy obscures what may be a more disturbing trend: Life expectancy in the former Soviet Union (FSU) leveled off more than 30 years ago before falling in the 1990s, according to a report released here today by the U.S. National Research Council (NRC).

The report, prepared by an NRC committee chaired by demographer Ronald Lee of the University of California, Berkeley, assembles statistics on declining life expectancy rates in the FSU and analyzes potential causes, which include heavy alcohol and tobacco consumption, increasing numbers of road accidents, rising homicide and suicide rates, high infant mortality, and the sale of methanol and other poisons masquerading as vodka. The latest figures collected by the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that the average life expectancy for men in Russia, for example, fell from about 65 years in the mid-1980s to 57 years in 1994. But the panel, which held workshops in late 1994 to probe the sudden decline, was surprised to find that life-expectancy numbers began leveling off in the Soviet Union as early as the 1960s. Life expectancy shot up in the late 1980s, after Mikhail Gorbachev's short-lived vodka prohibition, but soon plunged again. "As near as we can tell, the alcohol campaign seems to have worked," says NRC population committee director John Haaga.

The report's lesson is that while life expectancies in Western countries have steadily risen in the past 40 years, they have flat-lined or declined in FSU countries. "Overall, what you see is stagnation," says W. Ward Kingkade of the U.S. Bureau of the Census. In fact, Russia's life expectancy for men and women is about the same now as it was in 1958. "Everywhere else you see progress," says Kingkade, "and here you don't."