Excess winter deaths, fuel poverty and flu

Introduction

Content last reviewed: 27 July 2014

In common with the rest of England and other countries across Europe, more people die in the winter in Central Bedfordshire than in the summer.

Excess winter deaths, also called excess winter mortality, is a statistical measure which attempts to quantify how big the effect of the winter months is in a given population.  It can be expressed as the number of extra people who have died, or as an index comparing winter deaths to the number that occur at other times of the year.

These are crude measures.  People die unnecessarily all year round, and it is possible for the apparent number of excess winter deaths to go down simply because the number of deaths at other times of the year has gone up.  Moreover, the figures take no account of the age structure of the population, which makes comparison with other areas or the national average impossible.  Even comparing the picture in Central Bedfordshire over time is difficult, because the age structure of the population may change substantially year to year, for example with an influx of population due to a new housing development being built.

The indicative number for Central Bedfordshire in the year from August 2011 to July 2012 was 80 extra deaths during the winter, which was an increase of 12.6% compared to the average throughout the rest of the year.  This is the most recent data available on 05 March 2014.  The value of measuring excess winter deaths is not so much in the figures themselves, but in the principles underlying them.

It is well known that death rates are higher in the winter months, and these deaths are largely due to predictable causes:

  • Long-term conditions: cold temperatures pose a particular risk to people living with long-term cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, because these diseases reduce the body’s ability to make the natural physiological responses required to keep warm and well in the cold
  • Thrombosis: cold temperatures increase blood pressure and the blood’s tendency to clot, which is exacerbated by physical inactivity and causes heart attacks and strokes
  • Influenza and other viral infections: incidence of seasonal flu, respiratory syncytial virus and norovirus all peak in the winter months
  • Injuries: People of all ages are affected by increases in falls and road traffic accidents in winter weather

Certain groups are most at risk:

  • Older people, especially those living alone
  • People with long term illnesses
  • People with disabilities
  • Households with low income, living in poor housing, or in rural areas
  • Younger people who live alone
  • People who are homeless

The most important point to note is that these risk factors are eminently preventable, using simple measures such as protective behaviours (adequate clothing, eating well, staying active), home insulation and adequate heating, flu vaccination and alertness on the part of people and their caregivers to the increased risk of becoming unwell and the need to seek medical help early.


Last updated Friday, 22nd April 2016