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The Glasgow district where death comes early

Glasgow — The cheery mural that welcomes you to Calton not surprisingly fails to mention the dubious claim to fame of this district of eastern Glasgow — it has the lowest life expectancy in Europe.

Just a few minutes’ walk from the designer boutiques of Glasgow’s handsome city centre, men can expect on average to die at 53 compared with the British national average of 77.

And in an area devastated by the collapse of the steel and textile industries, women can also expect shorter lives than their counterparts elsewhere in Britain, dying on average at 75 compared to 81 nationally.

While men in Glasgow as a whole lead shorter lives than elsewhere in Britain, Calton’s social problems are so deep they cause doctors and health officials to despair.

Dr Robert Jamieson has worked in Calton for 22 overstretched years.

"Sadly we have a lot of very unwell patients. It’s not unusual to see patients who have heart attacks in their late thirties or early forties, or having strokes as well," he says. "We have an abundance of obesity, type 2 diabetes and lung problems due to excessive smoking.”

There is a difference, he says, depending on income: “In more affluent areas you have very large geriatric problems, because of the number of patients in their eighties or nineties. But sadly very few of our patients live until their eighties. Half the men die before 53 or 54 in this neighbourhood."

Jamieson says the chronic health problems stem from a lethal mix of a poor diet, poverty, unemployment, violence, plus heavy consumption of alcohol and drugs — and the bad habits are hard to break from one generation to the next.

In front of the decrepit Belgrove hotel in Calton, a home for single men with nowhere else to go, several residents are hanging around the front door, smoking heavily.

It is shortly before 10 am, but one of the residents announces he is heading to a pub and the bookmakers.

Opposite the Belgrove, a brand new sports centre complete with a gymnasium and football pitches is deserted until a group of children eventually turns up.

In Calton, 30 percent of residents — mainly descendants of Irish or Italian immigrants or with ancestors from the Scottish Highlands — are unemployed.

"It was the area of the industrial revolution and the start of the labour movement in Scotland," says local historian Patricia Clark, who grew up in the area. "Then came factories based on the steel industry. But the change (since the 1980s) is unbelievable because every single factory is gone."

In an effort to get to the root of the crisis, the Scottish authorities created the Glasgow Centre for Population Health.

By comparing western Scotland with similar post-industrial areas of Europe, such as the Nord-Pas-de-Calais in northern France and the Ruhr in western Germany, researchers at the centre have identified a "Glasgow effect.”

"We use this term because of the fact that Scotland’s health was poorer over and above that which you would expect from having high levels of poverty and deprivation," explains David Walsh, public health programme manager.

A hard-drinking culture in Scotland is undoubtedly one cause.

"It’s a general problem for the UK, but especially in Scotland, and Glasgow, we have the highest rate of alcohol-related deaths in Europe," Walsh says. "We have also a massive drug problem. For people in Calton, it’s been an issue, but you cannot isolate it from other factors in their life."

But the researchers have yet to identify the exact cause of the high mortality rates in Glasgow; indeed the situation for the most deprived is getting worse.

"For the poorer fifth, life expectancy has actually decreased over 20 years," Walsh concedes.

Lucie Godeau/AFP/Expatica