State addresses life expectancy crisis

  • 2005-02-02
  • By Steven Roman
TALLINN - Estonian men have the lowest life expectancy in the European Union, more than 10 years lower than the EU average, according to a survey released last week by Minister for Population and Ethnic Affairs Paul-Eerik Rummo.
The survey, undertaken by Tartu University, found that the average life expectancy for men in Estonia is 65 and 77 for women.

Rummo cited injury, cardiovascular disease and poisoning as the main reasons but specifically highlighted men's risky lifestyles when accounting for Estonia's dismal ranking. "The external reasons for early death are mainly risk behavior and unhealthy habits that generally catch much younger men here than in the EU," he told The Baltic Times. "Alcohol consumption is constantly increasing, as well as narcotics 's especially among men."

Ene-Margit Tiit, the Tartu University statistics professor who conducted the survey, said that men aged 30 's 50 were at the most risk. "In this group the intensity of men versus women dying is quite different. If a man has already survived up to age 60, then his life expectancy is not so different from that of a woman," said Tiit.

According to the Social Affairs Ministry, 42 percent of deaths among men aged 30 's 50 in 2002 were caused by accidents, injuries or poisonings, of which 20 percent were suicide, 12.5 percent murder, 12.5 percent alcohol poisonings and 11.5 percent traffic accidents. Blood circulation diseases accounted for 22.5 percent of deaths, cancer 9.5 percent, and gastric diseases (a large part of them caused by alcohol), 7.3 percent.

When accounting for the sharp difference between men suffering these problems in Estonia and the rest of the EU, Tiit attributed the underlying cause to the rapid social and economic transformation that began after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Voldemar Kolga, a professor of psychology at Tallinn's Pedagogical University who specializes in gender issues, echoed Tiit's assertion that men in Estonia were dying young as a result of the country's transformation to a market economy. He said that a huge loss in industrial sector jobs affected the mental health of men in particular.

"Men feel lonely, and social exclusion is more widespread among them. The attitude is to be independent, to be proud, to deal with all your problems alone. [This is] why so many men have a problem with stress, suicide, alcoholism and so on," Kolga said.

Lembit Onton, a 52-year-old graphic designer working in Tallinn, has successfully survived the transformation to a market economy. But like many Estonians his age, he worries about how the change has affected other members of his generation.

"We had to change our methods of work very quickly. A lot of people just can't get used to that," he said.

Onton added that, like most middle-aged men in Estonia, he doesn't get as much exercise as he should.

Yet some relief for Estonian men may be in sight. At the end of this year, the Social Affairs Ministry is launching a new program to prevent heart disease and to motivate people to have a healthier lifestyle. Plans to reduce cancer and promote mental health are also in the works.

Professor Kolga sees today's economic realities as having the strongest hold over lifestyles. Even men with well-paying jobs can't escape the stress of those in the high-risk age group, he said, noting that Estonian men work five to six hours longer than their average EU counterparts, mainly to increase their earning power.