Hypothermia: horror or hype?

As winter approaches, how worried should we be about hypothermia, asks AgeScotland’s Doug Anthoney.

Winter deaths figures make for dramatic headlines.   It’s not hard for journalists to conjure Dickensian images of legions of older people found dead, literally blue and frozen, in dark rooms; the lone candle on the table long since blown out.   But is this an accurate picture?

Every autumn the General Register Office for Scotland publishes winter deaths figures for the previous year.  Last winter there were fewer registered in Scotland than during any winter since records began more than 60 years ago.  That was, of course, a comparatively mild winter, so do the figures during the big freeze the previous year tell a different story?  Despite the unusually cold weather, winter 2010/11 saw the lowest number of deaths registered in the 20 most recent winters.  Both sets of figures also confirm a clear long-term downward trend in winter mortality. 

The idea that hypothermia is cutting down older people en mass also seems to be misplaced.  According to Frank Dixon, a Statistician at the National Records of Scotland, “There is no single cause of additional deaths in winter. Very few are caused by hypothermia and only a small proportion by influenza. Most are from respiratory and circulatory diseases such as pneumonia, coronary heart disease and stroke.”

You might wonder why, if things are getting better, Age Scotland is bothering with a Spread the Warmth campaign?  While freezing to death might be more myth than reality, older people nonetheless have to pay rising energy bills from incomes that are often fixed, and too often very low.  If you have to turn down the heating, or skimp on food, because you are worried about fuel costs, then not only will you feel miserable; it is also likely to be detrimental to your health in the long run.  That’s why we’re backing the Energy Bill Revolution, a campaign we think offers a practical way to ensure older people’s homes are super-energy efficient – cheap to heat, and warm to live in.

Winter also raises concerns other than health.  Snow falls, ice forms, gales blow – and many older people find themselves under virtual house arrest.  That’s why we’re inviting people to join our Winter Weather Watch so that we can make sure Scotland’s Councils are doing all they can to make sure older people stay connected to their communities and essential public services.

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