With the coldest British weather still ahead of us, now is the time to take precautions to protect those at risk – mainly the elderly.
Last winter was described as the coldest in 50 years and saw the number of deaths related to cold weather rise by nearly a third. With 31,000 ‘excess’ deaths last winter, almost all of them were people aged 75 and over. The figures, published by the Office for National Statistics found that about 40% of these deaths were caused by heart attacks or strokes and a third from respiratory disease.
Dr Angie Bone, from Public Health England (PHE), explains that while few people actually die from being too cold, the cold weather has a direct impact on physiology.
“Blood vessels constrict, resulting in high blood pressure. As blood is diverted away from the skin to keep vital organs going, fluid is lost from the circulation and blood becomes thicker and more at risk of clotting.”
The cold weather also affects immune systems that may be already weakened. This compromises the airways’ ability to catch and filter out viruses, which is thought to be why flu enjoys such a long season during winter months. Flu itself is a big killer among the elderly, leading to complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
Perhaps more surprisingly, there are almost 30% more deaths in dementia sufferers during the colder months. This is thought to be because dementia can cause a disturbance within the autonomic nervous system, which regulates body temperature. Because of this, those with dementia may not be able to recognise when they are too cold and may struggle to ask for help.
Cold weather affects health in other ways too; there are often more accidents due to icy paths and more deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning (as some people use unsafe heating appliances).
To keep safe this winter, older people are advised to get the flu jab (this is free for over 65s), have regular hot meals, keep heating between 18 and 21C, layer clothing and wear shoes with enough grip when going outside. Friends, family and neighbours are encouraged to check on elderly people living alone to ensure they are keeping warm and safe.