Ageing Society in Russia: Challenges and Opportunities

Written by Andrey Melnikov, STC, Embassy of Switzerland in Moscow

Russia, just as many other countries, encounters the problem of aging population. The increase of the senior age group is often seen by economists, sociologists and government officials as a shrinking labor force and a burden on the budget, especially in the conditions of the on-going economic crisis, since the official retirement age is relatively low – 55 years for women and 60 for men with an option to continue their professional life. However, the aging problem is not only a fiscal issue, but a combination of social, economic, political, cultural, religious and many other matters.

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Retirement Age

Actually Russia’s aging problem is so severe that even President Vladimir Putin stated back in 2006 that demography is “Russia’s most acute problem today.” According to the Russian Federal Service of State Statistics (Rosstat), there were about 33.789 million people of the retirement age in 2014 which was 23.5% of the total population of Russia and this proportion is expected to grow up to 28.5% by 2030 which will certainly affect the national economy. However, the number of people over 65 (senior people according to western standards) and older were only 13.1% in 2014. Given Rosstat’s and UN Population Division’s projections, the labor force of Russia could shrink by 20-23 million people between 2010 and 2050 (here again, one has to bear in mind the official retirement age).

Life Expectancy

According to the official statistics, in 2014, life expectancy in Russia was 79 years for women and 64 for men. It has really increased from 74 for women and 59 for men since 2010, but is still low especially for men. The Center for Studies of Income and Living Standards (CSILS) of the Higher School of Economics features the main problems affecting elderly Russians: the high rates of mortality, early death, poor health and lack of social engagement. Nearly 60% of the elderly in Russia limit their social life to taking care of their own families – children and grandchildren.

Research on Aging

Dr. Olga Strizhitskaya, a scientist from St. Petersburg State University, Department of Psychology, in her article “Aging in Russia” states that the research on aging in Russia began in the mid-1960s, since then it has developed in two main directions: biomedical and social gerontology. Since the beginning of the 20-th century, there has been an active development of the biological, medical and pharmaceutical research. Dr. Strizhitskaya highlights the world-class research done by Russian scientists who studied the role of genes in aging and age-related pathology, design for molecular epidemiologic studies and the relationship between cancer and aging. According to the scientist, in the 1960s, the focus of the Russian research on social gerontology was given to the problems of professional functioning of aging people, i.e. their adaptation to retirement.russia2

Examples of Research Projects

Higher School of Economics: Education Supports Older Russian’s Continued Employment

The researchers of the Higher School of Economics Anna Ermolina, Mariya Varlamova, Lyudmila Zasimova and Oksana Synyavskaya, at the seminar “Active Aging in the Context of Social Policy: How to Measure It” (March 31, 2015) identified good education and continued employment as two strengths of the Russian elderly people.

Despite the very low retirement age and generally poor health, older Russians have relatively high employment rates. Even though many people feel they need to work past retirement age to maintain their living standards, this situation also means that both the country’s economy and society accept seniors’ continued employment. An interesting observation here was made also by the World Bank Group: “Russia has a fairly high and growing rate of labor force participation; more than 68% of 15-72-year-olds are economically active.

In the 2000s, Russia’s fast economic growth increased employment opportunities for all age groups; as a result, the number of employed Russians aged 50 to 69 increased by 4.9 million people and reached 16.3 million in 2010, according to the national census data. Ermolina notes that 25% of Russians aged 55 and over are employed, placing Russia the 15th in the ranking of 29 countries (28 EU countries and Russia)

The proportion of employed Russians aged 50 to 69 has grown by some 11% over the past decade, particularly in the 60 to 64 age group, perhaps due to better education and an increased ability to adapt to the new economy compared to older generations.

According to the 2010 national census, 73.3% of women aged 50 to 54 and 66.1% of men aged 55 to 59 (i.e. in their pre-retirement years) were employed.

According to Varlamova, older Russians are ahead of most Europeans in terms of education; illiteracy in this age group is very low at 0.15% for those younger than 65, 0.26% for 65 to 69 year-olds, and 1.01% for seniors aged 70 and over.

The percentage of older Russians without any vocational training varies from 71% in the 85+ age group to 28% among 50 to 54 year-olds, while the proportion of older Russian with university and postgraduate degrees never drops below 10% even in the oldest age group and is almost 25% among 50 to 64 year-olds.

The only difference between Russian and European elderly in terms of education is that lifelong learning is not common in Russia: for most people, education ends with a university degree, and few people choose to take professional development courses or learn new occupations. This is evidenced by the low value of the adult education component of the active aging index: just 1.4% of Russians aged 55 to 74 have attended any courses, seminars or training in the past 12 months. Sinyavskaya believes, however, that with the right approach to encouraging lifelong learning, the Russian elderly’s overall trend of good education could be maximized to support even higher economic activity. russia3

Vladimir Skulachev – Theory of Programed Aging. Did He Discover a Remedy for Aging? Or Is It a Myth?

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Vladimir Petrovich Skulachev is the dean of the Department of Bioengineering and Bioinformatics of Moscow State University and an Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in addition to being the director of the MSU Belozerskiy Institute of Physico-Chemical Biology.  He proposed a theory of programmed aging based on evolvability in 1997. His concept, similar to the earlier proposal by August Weismann is that programmed aging assists the evolution process by freeing resources for younger and therefore more evolved members of a population.

Skulachev also suggested that gradual programmed aging, seen mostly in more complex animals and almost all mammals, has an evolutionary advantage over programmed sudden death seen in some animals such as salmon, octopus, and male marsupial mouse as well as in many insects and plants. Unlike “acute” programmed death, gradual aging presents a challenge that can be partially overcome by a more fit individual. This increases the effective difference between a more fit and less fit individual thus aiding the evolution process.

Skulachev directs the so called SkQ Megaproject to study the effect of plastoquinone derivatives (SkQs) in inhibiting oxidation in mitochondria, interrupting the aging program, and consequently providing treatment agents for various age-related conditions. He says he managed to find an anti-oxidant that stops the gradual deterioration of health caused by age. It looks complicated and it certainly is. For Vladimir Skulachev it is almost a life’s work.

“99% of the time oxygen turns into harmless water, but there’s that one percent that turns into a super-oxide that later turns into very poisonous elements,” Vladimir Skulachev says. “So the task was to find an anti-oxidant that stops that process.”

And hence, according to the Professor, it would also stop people from getting old. He has been working to perfect his treatment for more than 40 years. The difficult part of the process has been to try and prevent any side-effects, he notes.

Colleagues around the world think Dr Skulachev is on to something. Nobel Prize winner Dr. Gunter Blobel, M.D., Ph.D. at Rockefeller University, believes Skulachev’s theories look very realistic. “It has been shown that oxidative damage is huge. But we do not have an anti-oxidant of the type that Skulachev has developed. He coined the term bioenergetics. He is clearly the world’s best bio-chemist and bio-energetic scientist,” Blobel stated.

The compound has already undergone animal testing and the results appear promising.

International Cooperation Projects on Aging Research

In December 2012, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) and Buck Institute for Research on Aging (California, USA) signed the memorandum on mutual cooperation in organization of international projects, promotion of research studies on ageing and longevity, support of innovative activity and technological transfers. Both Institutes agreed on mutual use of available material and technical base, modern research and development equipment and other resources which are required for implementation of scientific and educational projects.

MIPT and Buck Institute are intended to carry out mutual research studies which are targeted at ageing mechanisms in humans, screening and development of new gene-protective drug products which delay ageing process that prevent and are used for treatment of such age-related disorders such as cardiovascular, oncological and neurodegenerative diseases. 

Siberian Scientists Discover a Possible Cure for Aging

Researchers at Russian Altay State University have reportedly finished the second stage of testing of what may prove to be a viable longevity treatment (February 2016). The scientists told media that the new medicine stimulates the body’s stem cell production, reinvigorates tissues and maintains them at levels which correspond with those of a biologically young organism.

“Many doctors believe that aging is a disease and can therefore be cured,” Ivan Smirnov, head of the Scientific Research Institute of Biological Medicine at Altay State University, told the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta. “We’ve been working on several rejuvenating medicines during the last few years, together with our colleagues from the Tomsk Research Institute of Pharmacology and Regenerative Medicine. The substances we work on include a treatment for post-chemotherapy bone marrow regeneration, a hepatoprotector for the human liver, etc. This is the 21st century medical science,” he added. The scientists have already tested the new cure on mice and earthworms, and expect to start human tests during the next few years. russia5

Given all the mentioned above, Russia clearly realizes the problem of its rapidly aging population and sees real opportunities in fighting aging in its good education system which helps the elderly extend their active life by longer professional and social involvement and it also heavily relies on its scientific potential in the area of biomedical research.

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