Life expectancy in Russia

27 March 2018

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National overview

As of 2017, life expectancy at birth in Russia is 72.5 years.

This is quite an improvement over the mid 1990s, when life expectancy had fallen into the low 60s, on par with much less developed countries like Sudan and Pakistan. And, for the first time, it is actually a modest improvement over Soviet levels which, in the '60s, topped many Western countries—but then froze in time as the economy stagnated.

Despite these gains, Russian life expectancy is still rather low compared to other countries with similar income. Malaysia's life expectancy is 75, Turkey is at 76, while Chile is at 79, according to Gapminder.

Regional trends

Breaking it down by federal subject reveals some rather smooth trends. Moscow and St. Petersburg stand out, as always. The remote, oil-rich Khanty-Mansi and Yamalo-Nenets regions also fare relatively well. Most notably, Russia’s Caucasian regions hold the highest rankings. Ingushetia ranks no. 1, with a life expectancy of 80.8 years as of 2016; followed by Dagestan (77.2) and then Moscow city (77.1).

The lowest life expectancy is found in Tuva, at 64.2 years—similar to Sudan and Haiti. Chukotka (64.4 years; extreme northeast) and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (65.9 years; southeast) follow close behind.

An interesting phenomenon is the lower life expectancy in regions between Moscow and St. Petersburg. These areas, such as Tver, Pskov and Karelia, have seen a massive drain of young people. This suction effect means that, ironically, some of Russia's worst-off regions are right next to its gleaming capital cities.

Males vs. females

The most striking thing about Russian life expectancy data is the difference between men and women. In 2016, the life expectancy for Russian women was 77.1 years, but only 66.5 years for men, an astonishing 11-year gap. Nowhere in the world is the difference greater. In most countries, including the US, the gap is about 5 years.

Generally, life expectancy for Russian women is pretty normal compared to countries with similar income. Moscow, St. Petersburg and the Caucasian regions again top the list, with the exception of Chechnya (I’m not sure why that is). Tatarstan in Central Russia does unusually well. The Far East does not fare well.

Russian men face a gloomier picture. Despite being relatively high-income, they find themselves ranked near countries like Senegal, Pakistan and Gabon. The two lightest shades on the map are comparable to Sub-Saharan Africa. In general, the map is similar to the first one.

Differences in male vs. female life expectancy are strongly positively correlated (0.64) with alcohol consumption.

What's going on down south?

Aside from its two metropolises, Russia’s healthiest and longest-lived populations are nestled in the Caucasus foothills. In addition to 1st-place Ingushetia and 2nd-place Dagestan, the regions of Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Karachay-Cherkessia and Chechnya all feature the darkest shade on the map, rounding out the list of high-performing Caucasian regions. This is not a new trend—a common Russian toast wishes for “Caucasian longevity and Siberian vitality”.

How come these obscure regions, Russia’s poorest, are also its longest-lived?

There are as many explanations as there are factors that affect human health. The Caucasus has always been renowned for its clean air and pure mineral water. It is far away from the messy Soviet-era factories that specialized in toxic substances.

Alcohol consumption has always been lower here than in other parts of Russia. In many Caucasian republics, such as Dagestan and Chechnya, large Muslim populations consider drinking haram. Christian regions like North Ossetia have no qualms about alcohol, but prefer local araka (~10% ABV) or buza (like beer) over Russian vodka.

With more warmth and sunlight, southern Russia has lower suicide rates. In many Caucasian republics, though, suicide rates are close to zero. Part of this must be due to under-reporting, since suicide is heavily stigmatized in the local culture. But the well-known social aspects of Caucasian culture—large gatherings, extended family, community support—surely contribute to lower rates of stress and suicide.