New voices in Hungarian “healthy living”

This time I am switching focus from the proposed governmental health care reforms to a reform that is already in progress in Hungary. And that is an increased awareness of the importance of "healthy living." There is more and more talk about prevention, about changing lifestyles. It is refreshing.

Almost daily there are interviews with doctors on television about this or that illness. Today a doctor explained that a mild elevation of sugar in the bloodstream should not be immediately treated with medication. Perhaps first one ought to discuss weight problems. The doctor should suggest daily exercise. A reader who lives in the United States would say: "But this is obvious!" Yes, it is obvious for us because it has been pounded into our heads that we ought to live healthier lives. Or at least the more educated and better-off population is trying to follow these pieces of medical advice.

In Hungary until recently there was very little emphasis on prevention. One went to a doctor if one was ill, sometimes fatally so. For instance, the cancer statistics are very bad in Hungary mostly because by the time people go to the doctor it is often too late. Lately, doctor after doctor announces on the radio and television that cancer nowadays is not necessarily a death sentence. People are urged to have screenings, and doctors keep repeating that if certain cancers are discovered early there is a 80-90% chance of recovery.

Obesity is becoming a problem in Hungary too. The causes are well known: too many cars, too little physical work, and too much unhealthful food. But it is increasingly fashionable to diet, and some savvy people even sign up for exercise classes in fitness clubs. There is also an attempt (however feeble) to curb smoking. The Hungarian statistics are bad. Perhaps the worst in Europe. The average smoker smokes a pack a day. Someone figured it out that if both a man and his wife smoke, they spend yearly 742,000 forints, or more than €2,800 a year on their habit. And cigarettes are still relatively inexpensive in Hungary. However, if we consider that the average salary in Hungary is about 150,000 Ft a month, this sum is staggering. Attempts are being made to curb smoking in public places. People grumble, people refuse to oblige, but sooner or later the new way of life will be accepted and fewer people will smoke.

This health propaganda is already bearing fruit. Since 1990, the year of the change of regime, the expected life span has increased by four years. It is still very low by European or American standards, but it is getting better.

If Hungarians improve their own lifestyles and if the quality of Hungarian health care improves, they can look forward to increasing life expectancy. Then they’ll just have to figure out how to pay for their golden years.