Survival of the fittest
By Abdul Turay
Published Postimees 23 November 2011

Never, ever start a story with a statistic a colleague once told me when I just started out in journalism. Just to be contrary, here's one you are probably familiar with.

In Estonia, life expectancy for men is 65.9 years, for women 76.8 years. In the U.K. life expectancy for men is 77.2 years for women life expectancy is 81.6. In Sweden life expectancy for men is 78.7 years and 83 years for woman.

Lies, lies and statistics. These statistics aren't actually lies but they don't tell the whole story. I have travelled a bit, so the newspaper asked me tell that story and interpret these statistics.

Let's start with what you probably know. Health care and sickness prevention in Estonia, and indeed in the Central and Eastern Europe in general, is better than in the developing world but still not up to the standards of Old Europe. So much so that even though women outlive men everywhere, British and Swedish men outlive Estonian women. The reason for this is there is a a strong correlation between life expectation and prosperity both for individuals and on a societal level. A basket case economy like Zimbabwe has a life expectation rates of about 44 years.

The main issue everybody is worried about is why Estonian men dying off faster than Estonian women?

Dr Eero Merelind, chairman of the Estonian Health Fund, is also a family doctor who practised in the United Kingdom for a while. He thinks the health problems in Britian are similar to Estonia, heart disease, blood circulations and accidents but the mentality is a little different.

“Estonian men are a little bit shy to meet the doctor. They need the support from the wife,” he said.

But he says Estonian men drink too much and are prone to accidents.

“This is coming from the historical background, maybe too liberal alcohol policy.
“Young men are looking for adrenaline, also work accidents.”

Dr Merelind is right, Estonian men drink too much.

People forget the size of the problem, in many cultures people hardly drink at all. Obviously in Muslim countries it's not allow. I have lived in places where you can go for months without seeing a single drunk person.

In Estonia I can't leave my building without being confronted by some drunk. I never want to talk to them. I can't have a sensible conversation with a drunk since I am always sober, but I have to act friendly because drunk people are unpredictable and the situation could easily turn ugly.

I got so tired of it that mostly I avoid going out altogether.

Estonians drink too much even compared to other Europeans. Only Russians and Finnish are worse.

Estonians are worse than my own countrymen. You wouldn't get this impression roaming around any British or Irish city on a Friday night or seeing English drinkers, shouting from the rooftops, pissing in the street and generally fighting their corner.

It's a cultural difference. The English drink outdoors, drink noisily and drink mostly beer. Estonians drink at home, drink in silence and drink a lot of spirits. Estonians cause less havoc to others but more harm to themselves.

I have noticed also in the last few years in England attitudes on excessive drinking are changing, its become uncool and low class. Years of anti-alcohol consumption advertising are having an effect.

In Estonia it is still somehow considered unmanly and downright weird not to drink at all.

Estonian men having a knack for getting into accidents. This comes about through lack of criminal intent.

Young men everywhere will always find ways to get an adrenaline rush.

In Britain the preferred method is physical violence, the British enjoy smashing up things and people. We saw it in the riots this year, we can see it in the low level suburban violence that goes up all the time but is rarely reported, we can see it in the football hooligans culture, also known as “casual culture”, for which England is famous. This violence is well organised. Fights are arranged days beforehand. Football hooligans train themselves in martial arts. Causality levels are surprisingly low.

In America young men have a variety of ways of getting their thrills. I knew young men whose idea of fun was to jump in front of moving cars and then roll over the bonnet like Minoan athletes in ancient Crete somersaulting bulls. It required a lot of skill to execute this manoeuvre without getting hurt.

My acquaintances would then writhe on the road in fake agony and threaten to sue the driver if they didn't pay up. Why not get your kicks and exhort money for it? ...oh those clever Americans.

In Asia the preferred method of thrill seeking is driving around is sports cars, very, very, quickly.

If you ever seen any of the “the fast and the furious” franchise of movies you know what I'm writing about.

I got involved in this when I was in Asia, just as an observer I should add. Again the level of organisation is incredible. Those guys spend years honing their skills in parking lots and deserted beaches. Races are planned, weeks sometimes months in advance. Cars are are not only customised for speed but for safety. They bet money and girlfriends.

And the people involved aren't just kids. Actually the main racers are educated professionals who can afford expensive souped-up pursuit car. They get into it when their young and continue into adulthood. The guy driving me round the streets of Hong Kong one night at 140 kph was an orthopaedic surgeon in his 40s.


Estonians young men also like to drive very, very,fast but there is nowhere near this level of organisation.

The Asian racer is a skilled amateur. The Estonian racer is just some dude who likes to speed, he is speeding to his own funeral.

The good news is Estonian men like sports as much as any nation I have ever encountered, the bad news they work so hard they don't have time to do it. Most of my Estonian friend do sports of some kind or another. I have one friend who spent the summer cycling 70 kilometres, he's pretty fit.

I train in boxing at a gym with another friend, he's fitter and slimmer than me, I am stronger and faster though. But we didn't train this week because he and I were too busy with work which brings me to a contradiction.

The place I have been where people look like they are in the best health is the West coast of Africa. In Estonia as in the rest of Europe you occasionally see men who look like they work out. But in Africa, the men all look terrific, every other guy looks like an athlete.

In fact the poorer the country is in my experience the the better shape the men are in. The statistics say the opposite. African men should not only be in worse shape than European men they should be dead by the time they are 45.

In countries with weak health care systems, Darwinian forces come into play. It is the fittest and the naturally healthiest who survive into adulthood.

Young men who have no jobs, little money and plenty of free time have got to do something to keep themselves occupied and impress women so they train; martial arts, soccer, beach volleyball, running, basketball, whatever.

In Estonia this is impossible. In the old days hard work in the fields kept you fit, nowadays we are all stuck behind computers.

So if Estonian men are getting bad results its from, kind of, good behaviour. They are not as loutish or as publicly drunk as some nations, so they end up silently drinking themselves to death at home. When they break the law they not as cynically organised as other nations, so they end up in accidents. They work too hard which leads to stress, heart disease and high blood pressure.

Doctors are confident the gap between men's and women's life expectancy will narrow as the economy grows better. But it's they not going to change the fitness levels of Estonian men. Doctors may be able to keep Estonian men alive for longer, but how fit will the survivors be?