There are several important questions we can ask after last week’s news from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs that Russia’s population is “old.” As Sociological Images reminds us, there are a lot of numbers we should know, or at least know to ask about, when we’re interpreting statistics like this.

1. Who counts as old? The Moscow Times says that 13% of the population is 65 or above, and then quotes a figure of 22.7% over the age of retirement later on. It fails to clarify that the age of retirement in Russia is not 65 – it’s 60 for men and 55 for women. So men ages 60-64 and women ages 55-64 make up nearly 10% of the population? Yep – according to the U.S. Census Bureau data, they actually make up 10.2%.This significantly changes the picture from a place like, for example, the U.S., where the demographic age cohort delineation of 65 is also the retirement age.

2. Mark Adomanis at Forbes, clearly a demographic crisis skeptic, asks how different Russia’s age structure actually is from neighboring countries’. (Answer: not that different – although the countries he picked are a bit of a hodgepodge.) I didn’t find his population pyramids very easy to read, so I put the data together another way:

Percentage of Population by Age Group

Ages

Bulgaria

Czech Republic

Germany

Poland

Russia

Slovakia

Average

0-14

14.2

13.4

13.1

14.6

16.0

15.5

14.8

15-64

66.9

68.9

66.1

70.9

70.9

71.0

69.3

65+

18.9

17.6

20.9

14.5

13.1

13.4

15.8

To further contextualize, in the good ol’ U.S., adults 65 and over make up 12.8% of the population, but we have a much larger youth cohort – 20.2% of us are under 16. Our birth rate also almost matches Russia’s, at 13.5 births/1,000 U.S. population vs. 13.3 births/1,000 Russian population, but our death rate is lower, at 8.38/1000 vs. 13.3/1000.

3. What problems might an aging population cause for Russia? Of course, workforce and the pension system come to mind immediately (well, immediately after the specter of demographic crisis and the gradual erasure of Russia, Russian language and Russian culture from the face of the earth, depending on how much of an alarmist you are); and indeed, the possibility of raising Russia’s very low age of retirement has been under discussion for quite some time. I’m interested in something else, though – in its unit on mortality, the demography textbook I’m reading through mentioned something interesting: rising death rates in Russia and neighboring countries in the past few decades, while caused in large part by social upheaval, also reflect the Soviet medical system’s inability to make the shift from curing contagious diseases (which it did, and does, fairly well) to adequately managing degenerative diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. In terms of Russia’s aging population, this is problematic both because it suppresses life expectancy overall and because it decreases the aging population’s quality of life and productivity. In addition to many people’s end-of-life care, more and more pensioners will need years of medication and management of diseases such as diabetes and congestive heart failure. The silent AIDS crisis (you should definitely click that link) and the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis add to the number of Russians who need chronic medical treatment. How will the Russian medical system respond to these changing needs?

Those are my three questions (and answers, sort of) about Russia’s shifting demographics. Anything you’d add?

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