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The main causes of UK heatwave deaths 2022

Analysis predicts the amount of heat-related deaths will increase as a result of climate change, but who is most at risk and what other factors are at play?

August 07, 2022

Busy beach during heatwave

Temperatures are set to soar and thousands of vulnerable people including the elderly are at risk of heat-related deaths. Analysis by Taking Care predicts the amount of heat-related deaths will increase as a result of climate change, but who is most at risk and what other factors are at play?

Contents:

 

What is heat-related illness?

Heat-related illnesses are often grouped together as hyperthermia, which refers to a condition where your body is unable to maintain temperature and handle heat. Anyone can get a heat-related illness but the risk is higher for elderly adults, overweight people, babies, young children, and people who have a pre-existing medical condition such as heart disease.

Extreme temperatures kill 5 million people a year with heat-related deaths rising. The UK has a temperate climate, but England and Wales have seen some of the hottest summers in recent years with average temperatures rising over time.

Cold weather has previously been linked to deaths especially within the elderly demographic, but ONS has found a reduction in deaths caused by cold winters, flagging hot weather as the main risk.  

According to recent ONS government statistics, 1,272 people die every year on average from extreme weather, with 12,086 extra hospitalisations associated with hot days. 

When the UK’s hottest day is recorded in summer, an increase in deaths follow. This report takes a look at the trends and reveals who is most at risk.

 

UK heatwave deaths data

Graph: Heatwave deaths in the UK by year

Taking Care conducted an analysis of the last five years of Government data and found that in total 6,723 people have died due to heat-related illness in summer months.

2020 saw the biggest increase in deaths over the last four years with 2,556 people dying during the three UK heatwaves registered, an average of 213 deaths per month.

According to ONS, rising temperatures could see heat-related deaths treble by 2050, with vulnerable people such as elderly adults most at risk.

According to ONS, rising temperatures could see heat-related deaths treble by 2050, with vulnerable people such as elderly adults most at risk.

 

Elderly most at risk of heat-related deaths

Elderly lady on sunny day

According to the most recent ONS data, 2,244 over 65s died during the 2020 heatwave during the first half of August where temperatures exceeded 34°C in parts of the UK for six consecutive days - which accounted for 88% of total heatwave deaths during that year alone. Since 2017, the number of elderly people dying from a heatwave in the UK has increased by a shocking 146%.

Graph: number of over 65 deaths from heatwaves

Heat-related health dangers for older adults soar during summer and across the world, with a 54% increase in heated-related deaths in elderly people globally in the last two decades.

Over 65s are more at risk, especially if they have chronic conditions or problems getting around. Dehydration can be an issue, so can overheating, heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

 

Rise in heat-related deaths linked to climate change

Graph: average temperature in the UK 1884 - 2020

Globally, human-induced climate change has been estimated to account for 37% of heat-related deaths.

Estimates suggest there will be a 257% increase in heat-related deaths and a 2% decline of cold weather deaths by 2050.

The global rise in temperature is putting us all at risk regardless of who we are or where we live, with current environmental factors causing deeper strain for people suffering pre-existing health conditions such as asthma.

Heat makes air pollution worse - impacting the lungs. Ground-level ozone pollution, often called smog, is a common threat that’s exasperated during the summer months. Heat causes the ozone gases to react and aggressively attack lung tissue.

According to The World Health Organisation, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can all be linked back to air pollution.

 

Heatwave and COVID-19: Summer 2020 had more deaths than the pan-European heatwave in 2003

Summer 2020 had the most amount of heatwave deaths with 2,556 in total. This figure is comparable to the pan-European heatwave experienced in 2003 where 2,234 sadly died due to sweltering temperatures of 38.5 degrees. Concerns were raised around global warming and the impact this has on heat-related deaths, as this was the hottest summer in Europe since 1540.

But why were heatwave related deaths so high during the pandemic?

It was during a time when people were at their most isolated, and spending time in the garden or outdoors was the only escape. It’s possible that the distraction of a global pandemic meant people forgot the basics of staying safe in hot weather.

 

Data reveals the 5 main causes of death in a heatwave - and asthma sufferers are MOST at risk!

Jogger on a hot day

We analysed ONS data from 2001-2020 looking at the top causes of death by temperature, revealing that the main causes are respiratory and cardiovascular.

Heatwaves cause premature deaths from cardiac, kidney and respiratory disease and according to the Environmental Audit Committee, there will be 7,000 heat-related deaths every year by 2050 if the Government doesn’t take action.

Graph: causes of hot weather deaths

Breathing in hot or humid air can exacerbate respiratory conditions such as asthma, and analysing data shows over 30,674 respiratory deaths in warm weather across a 19 year period, averaging over 1,614 deaths each year.

Around 5.4 million people in the UK suffer from asthma and high temperatures mixed with increased pollen levels can be deadly. The data shows that 43.8% of deaths recorded during a heatwave are respiratory, showing how great the risk is for asthma sufferers.

Heatstroke is a danger but cardiovascular stress during a heatwave is deadly

The data reveals cardiovascular disease is one of the biggest causes of death during a heatwave, accounting for 43.7% of all deaths. Breaking down the data, 24,342 people died in a heatwave due to cardiovascular issues, averaging 1,281 every year.

 

What is cardiovascular disease (CVD)?

This is a general term which refers to conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels. CVD includes all heart circulatory diseases such as angina, heart attack, coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke and vascular dementia.

When core body temperatures rise, thermosensors respond by shunting a large proportion of blood to the surface, this is to aid heat transfer from the body to the environment and allow for an increased sweat rate.

It’s this process of increased blood flow to the skin during soaring temperatures that puts the cardiovascular system at risk - the blood vessels near the skin need to dilate, forcing the heart to pump harder and faster.

Those who struggle to escape the heat are most at risk - advanced ageing and cardiovascular disease is the biggest factor. Elderly people have a reduced capacity to regulate their body temperatures or ‘thermoregulate’.

Interestingly, the elderly are not as adept at behavioural thermoregulation - which includes actions to protect yourself from soaring temperatures, such as seeking shade or air conditioned environments. These ‘cooling strategies’ are sought out less often than those of younger generations.

According to new research, hotter nights increase the risk of death of heart disease from men in their early 60s. A rise of just 1°C above usual summer night-time temperatures could be linked to an increase in the risk of deaths from cardiovascular disease (CVD) in men in this age group.

 

Adults with dementia are more at risk of death during a heatwave

Breaking down the government data, those diagnosed with dementia were the fourth largest group who died during recorded heatwaves, with 7,045 deaths, averaging 370 deaths from dementia-related heat illness every year.

Currently, there are over 850,000 people in the UK who are diagnosed with dementia. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer's and it's estimated that 80% of all dementia illnesses are Alzheimer's related.

 

But why are Dementia sufferers more at risk?

Dehydration is a common challenge for older people, but elderly adults with dementia often forget to drink and need extra support keeping their fluid levels up when temperatures soar.

Studies have shown that in dementia sufferers, the part of your brain that recognises you’re dehydrated and sends a message to say you’re thirsty doesn’t always work. Also, some dementia medications can worsen dehydration as a side effect.

It’s a sad fact that dementia and falls go hand in hand - shockingly one in three adults over the age of 65 will have a fall this year, with dementia sufferers being more at risk. If a vulnerable adult with Alzheimer's has a fall outside during a heatwave, the effects could be devastating.

Research has shown that having a personal alarm reduces overall hospital admissions in older adults by 50% and by 44% where admissions were due specifically to falls. At Taking Care, some of our personal alarms feature fall detection and GPS tracking which is particularly useful for family members and carers of elderly people with dementia.

 

The medication that can increase heat stress

Shockingly, some medications can increase the risk of heat stress. How this works varies by medication but individuals taking the following medication should take extra care during a heatwave.

The below is an example of medication that can increase the risk of heat-related illness, but individual medications should be discussed with your doctor.

  • Antidepressants, antihistamines, phenothiazines and anticholinergics (used for some psychiatric conditions) act on an area of the brain that controls the skin’s ability to make sweat.
  • Beta blockers (heart tablets) reduce the ability of the heart and lungs to adapt to stresses including hot weather.
  • Amphetamines raise body temperature.
  • Diuretics (fluid tablets) act on the kidneys and encourage fluid loss. This can quickly lead to dehydration in hot weather.
  • Opioids and sedatives can reduce the person’s awareness of physical discomfort, which means symptoms of heat stress may be ignored.

 

5 hot weather tips that could save an older adult’s life

With elderly adults being most at risk of death during a heatwave, we’ve put together our key tips that will help keep them safe.

1. Keep hydrated

Elderly adults are more at risk of dehydration and overheating when it’s hot outside. Waiting until they feel thirsty could be dangerous, and having a continuous flow of liquids throughout the day is the safest option - the NHS say you should be aiming for around 1.2 litres, or,  6-8 glasses of water when temperatures soar, although some elderly adults may need more than this depending on existing health conditions.

Eating foods with lots of natural liquids such as watermelon, strawberries, skimmed milk, cucumber and lettuce could help massively decrease dehydration. Ensure elderly adults are also eating a balanced diet to help their bodies replace any salt lost by sweating.

Your caffeine and alcohol intake should be limited during hot weather as they are both diuretics and advance dehydration in the body.

 

Signs of dehydration

The elderly, babies and children are more at risk of dehydration - this means your body is losing more liquids than it can take in. If it’s not treated, it can become worse and cause serious problems. The NHS lists the following symptoms for dehydration:

  • Feeling thirsty
  • Dark yellow and strong smelling urine
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Feeling tired
  • A dry mouth, lips and eyes
  • Needing to urinate little and fewer than 4 times a day

 

2. Avoid direct sun

    Elderly adults should be encouraged to stay indoors when the sun is at its hottest, between the hours of 11am and 4pm. If this isn’t possible, it’s important to stay in areas of shade and out of direct sunlight. Always wear a hat whenever outdoors and remember to take extra precaution if spending time in the garden.

    When it’s really hot, staying indoors is often best. Work out which is the coolest room in the house. Keep the curtains closed and use light-coloured fabrics if you can (because dark curtains can make a room hotter).

    Remember elderly people might not be able to tell when they’re feeling overheated or ill, so keeping an extra eye out for the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness is key during hot weather.

     

    Signs of heat-related illness

    Older people have a tough time dealing with heat and humidity, and sometimes they might not know if they’re experiencing symptoms of a heat related illness. But there are things you can look out for when caring for an elderly person:

    • Dizziness or confusion
    • Fast breathing or fast pulse
    • A high temperature of 38 or above
    • Excessive sweating and pale, clammy skin
    • Loss of appetite and or feeling sick
    • A headache
    • Heat cramps: muscle spasms in the stomach, arms or legs
    • Being very thirsty

     

    3. Don’t use a stove or oven to cook

      If you’re staying indoors, you should avoid making your home any hotter by using the oven or stove tops.

      Any added heat could increase the risk of getting a heat-related illness, especially if you’re vulnerable. Slow cookers or air fryers are a great way to cook food without breaking a sweat -  the same goes for instant pots or multi cookers. Avoid dining al-fresco when the sun is in its hottest hours. Real Homes have put together some great recipe ideas to help avoid unnecessary heat in your kitchen.

       

      4. Avoid synthetic fabrics

      Suggesting a summer wardrobe shopping trip could be a good excuse to get an elderly person out of the house (and hopefully into an air conditioned shopping centre) during a heatwave. Find clothes suitable for warmer weather and buy loose fitting clothing in pale shades. Avoid any heavy synthetic fabrics and opt for lightweight cottons to help keep them cool.

      Older eyes can also have difficulty adjusting quickly to any changes in light to dark, so 100% UV protection sunglasses are a must. If elderly people’s eyes are exposed to bright sunlight throughout the day it could lead to trips or falls when out and about. It’s a disturbing fact that there are nearly a quarter of a million falls-related emergency hospital admissions in England every year among patients 65 and over.

      You can download our free guide to learn how to reduce the risk of a fall.

       

      5. Keeping heat down at home

      Not everyone has access to air conditioning, especially in the domestic setting. In order to keep temperatures down, you need to go against the grain and keep all windows closed during the day, keep curtains drawn or blinds pulled down to minimise rising temperatures through the glass. Once temperatures have cooled sufficiently in the evening, windows, blinds and curtains can then be reopened.

       

      More information about staying safe in hot weather

      For more tips on staying  safe during the UK’s heatwaves, we've put together 6 top tips in staying safe and enjoying the summer weather.

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