Explaining the News: Why the cold weather is becoming a health risk

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently reported that "excess winter deaths" across England and Wales rose by 29% last year, with some of the coldest temperatures on record contributing to an overall 14% rise in deaths in March. So what's causing the increased mortality rate? And what can we do to keep ourselves and our families warm in the colder months?

Who is affected?

According to the ONS, pensioners were the worst affected by the cold, particularly the over 75s. The problem doesn't seem to be location-specific; while the North West saw the highest number of excess winter deaths and London the lowest, the capital in fact had the highest rate in the year before that.

How does it happen?

The human body is designed to keep itself warm, even in freezing temperatures, and most healthy people with good supplies of energy are able to maintain a normal body temperature. However, many people - particularly the elderly - are unable to efficiently use energy, meaning that they eventually reach the point where their bodies lose more heat than they can generate.

If the body's temperature decreases to below 35 degrees centigrade, hypothermia sets in. The cardiovascular system has to work hard to pump blood into the vital organs, keeping them as warm as possible. As a result, fingers and toes start to go numb, the body becomes tired and lethargic, and thinking becomes confused. As the heart's blood supply diminishes, this can cause chest pains and shivering.

The stress on the cardiovascular system means that the risk is higher for people with high blood pressure and heart conditions - so it's important to contact your doctor if you're concerned, and to alert your local council if you're worried that your home is too cold.

Why is it happening?

Politicians, economists, healthcare experts, the media and just about everybody else has their own theory on why winter claims the lives of thousands each year. A combination of the following factors is likely to be blamed:

Age UK's charity director Caroline Abrahams says that the UK's low energy efficiency leads to rising energy and food bills, meaning that many families are making a tough decision between heating and eating.

  • The Department of Health reported an unusually long influenza season. The flu spreads more quickly in winter due to our closer proximity to each other, and the colder weather would have brought people indoors more often, allowing the virus to spread further.
  • The ONS reported that the majority of winter deaths could be attributed to people with existing cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases and those with respiratory problems, suggesting that the cold's main action was to exacerbate existing conditions.

It's also worth noting that this isn't merely an issue for the UK - the Department of Health stated that the figures were in line with the rest of Europe, due to the influenza outbreak and prolonged winter. The flu jab is now available via your GP if you're at risk, or you can visit a chemist to have your vaccination.





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