We have been very lucky this winter in that, whilst it has been wet and stormy, it hasn’t been cold. However, February is statistically the coldest month in the UK so we may yet experience snow, ice and freezing temperatures.
With the Office of National Statistics giving estimated figures for excess winter deaths in 2012/2013 of 31,100, cold weather is not something people should ignore or think doesn’t affect them. This is particularly true of the elderly with the majority of deaths occurring in those over the age of 75.
How does the cold weather affect health?
When the body temperature falls, this causes a number of changes in the body including:
- Raised blood pressure as blood vessels constrict.
- A slight thickening of the blood.
- Tightening of airways.
- A reduction in core body temperature.
The impacts of these changes can include:
- An increased risk of heart attacks.
- An increased risk of attacks of angina in those with heart disease.
- A higher incidence of asthma attacks in those who suffer with the disease.
- An increased risk of stroke due to raised blood pressure.
- Increased breathing difficulties in those with other respiratory illnesses such as COPD and emphysema.
Cold weather and the elderly
As already stated most winter deaths occur in the elderly which is largely due to:
- An increased incidence of existing health problems that are exacerbated by the cold.
- A reduction in subcutaneous fat in the elderly meaning their ability to control their core temperature is poor.
- Reduced mobility – many elderly people cannot get out to warmer locations or even move around which can help keep them warm. As a result, they are more vulnerable.
- Fear of energy bills. Many elderly people are on a fixed income i.e. their pension and, as a result are frightened to put on the heating.
If you know someone who suffers from a respiratory illness, blood pressure or is elderly then please make sure they are aware of the impacts cold can have on their health. They need to:
- Stay warm – don’t go out into the cold if it is not necessary.
- Claim all benefits they are entitle to including the Warm Homes Discount, Cold Weather Payments and Winter Fuel Allowance.
- Make sure they are on the cheapest energy tariff so that what fuel they use is more affordable.
- Eat warm food and drink warm drinks on a regular basis to help keep them warm.
- Wrap up warm with several layers of clothes and, if necessary, use hot water bottles or electric blankets.
- Make sure they have their boiler serviced annually to help reduce the risk of breakdowns during cold weather.
For more information about the effects of cold weather on health and how to prevent excess winter deaths:
Office of National Statistics data on Excess Winter Mortality in England and Wales 2012/2013 http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/subnational-health2/excess-winter-mortality-in-england-and-wales/2012-13–provisional–and-2011-12–final-/stb-ewm-12-13.html
Details of the Warm Home Discount scheme https://www.gov.uk/the-warm-home-discount-scheme/overview
NHS choices advice for keeping warm and well http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/winterhealth/Pages/KeepWarmKeepWell.aspx