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Winter deaths report: how does cold weather affect mortality in the UK?

Analysis shows death rates among the elderly increase during colder winter months, with warnings to prioritise keeping homes warm.

October 04, 2022

Elderly couple in winter

The cost of living crisis and rising energy prices could plunge more UK pensioners into fuel poverty this winter, resulting in excess winter deaths. Whilst analysis indicates the number of deaths among the over 60s typically increases during the winter months, financial pressures in the winter of 2022-23 could have a drastic impact on the elderly population during the UK cold snap.

Severe winter weather typically starts in November when we see temperatures start to plummet, with the UK average temperature sitting at around seven degrees Celsius and further decreasing as we head into the new year.

Analysis conducted by TakingCare Personal Alarms has looked into the trends around seasonal death rates among the elderly population and is issuing an urgent warning for older people to prioritise keeping their homes warm this winter along with some key cold weather safety tips.

Contents:

 

Will the cost of living crisis increase seasonal death rates in older adults?

The excess winter mortality index (EWMI) in 2020/21 showed that over 30 per cent more deaths occurred in the winter months in England and Wales compared with the non-winter months.

Pre-pandemic figures indicate that, in England and Wales we see an average of 30,000 excess winter deaths, with the figure for 2019/20 sitting at 29,289. Between November 2021 and February 2022, more than 170,000 people aged 60 and over passed away compared with 153,000 during the previous period.

Data from 2021/22 shows that we see an increase in deaths among the over 60s during the winter, with the figure starting to climb in December and then decreasing again as we head into the Spring.

Graph showing non-Covid related deaths by month

Graph showing deaths by gender

We can also observe an increase in elderly deaths during the summer (particularly in July), showing that heatwave deaths are on the rise too.

Older people become more susceptible to illness and death during extreme weather conditions (both hot and cold), but with rising concerns around peoples’ ability to heat their homes this year, we may see excess winter deaths among our elderly population.

With polls revealing 1-in-4 Brits plan to avoid turning the heating on this winter, the UK could see seasonal death rates rise even higher this winter.

70 per cent of those surveyed also said they would be turning the heating on less following the news that from October 2022, average gas and electricity bills will increase from £1,971 to £3,549 a year.

Recent announcements from the newly appointed Prime Minister, Elizabeth Truss, has provided some peace of mind, with the PM introducing an energy bill price cap of £2,500 from October for a typical household using 12,000 kWh of gas and 2,900 kWh of electricity per year.

But, for many elderly people, particularly those relying on state pensions, this support is likely not sufficient to sustain them over the winter months.

 

Impact of fuel poverty

The potential impact of fuel poverty for UK pensioners

The latest figures show that in 2020, an estimated 13 per cent of households (3.16 million) were living in fuel poverty in England. Among these, couples over the age of 60 had the highest average fuel poverty gap of £262.

What is fuel poverty?

Fuel poverty is an indication of a households ability to afford to heat (or cool) their home. If a household cannot afford to heat their home, then they are defined as living in fuel poverty. Fuel poverty is caused by a combination of one or more of the following: low income, mounting fuel prices, poor energy efficiency, high housing prices and poor quality rental housing.

A household’s fuel poverty ratio can be calculated as:

  • Fuel costs (usage x price) / income.

If the ratio is more than 0.1, then the household would be considered as being fuel poor and its inhabitants would therefore be living in fuel poverty.

What kind of help is available for people living in fuel poverty?

The effects of living in a cold house for pensioners can be fatal, so it’s crucial that elderly people can afford to keep their homes warm during the winter months. TakingCare’s resident Independent Living Expert Louise Yasities shares tips on how to keep elderly warm during the winter further down in this report.

There are some additional benefits available to older people struggling to afford their energy bills, including a one-off payment of £300 for all pensioner householders who already receive the Winter Fuel Payment and a Cost of Living Payment of £650 for low-income pensioners. 

Those qualifying for this payment are also eligible for further support including a Cold Weather payment of £25 when the average temperature drops below zero degrees for seven consecutive days, £140 off electricity bills through the Warm Home Discount Scheme and a free TV licence for those aged 75 and over.

British Gas has shared that the new average energy bill as of October 2022 for a 1-2 bed house or flat will be £142.69 and £206.32 for a medium-sized, three-bed house.

Household energy bills rose by 54 per cent in April 2022 and were due to rise by a further 80 per cent in October, which has since decreased to 27 per cent following the introduction of the new Energy Price Guarantee.

Graph showing fixed rate energy bills

Money saving tips

Check out these money-saving tips for pensioners for more financial advice for the elderly.

Read more

 

Ambulance in UK

Will a big freeze increase ambulance waiting times?

Insights from the Nuffield Trust found that ambulance response times in the UK were longer in the winter of 2020/21 than other recent winters, with the average ambulance wait time for emergency situations such as a heart attack or stroke sitting at between 38 and 53 minutes, depending on location.

In December 2021, one-in-ten emergency patients waited nearly two hours for an ambulance. 

What’s more, we also see A&E wait times increase during the winter, with reports showing that almost 1.25m A&E visitors waited more than four hours before treatment or hospital admission. This figure was nearly double that of the previous pandemic winter (2020/21).

In 2020-21 there were 17.4 million attendances in Accident and Emergency in England (Source: MSitAE), with one third (5.1m) of these occurring during the winter months of November to February. Figures for 2019/20 show that winter A&E attendances sat at more than seven million in England.

Graph showing A&E attendance

 

Lady living in cold house

How does living in a cold house effect pensioners

Freezing temperatures increase the likelihood of medical emergencies among older people. With less daylight hours, elderly people who are unsteady on their feet are more likely to trip in the home, and icy or snowy roads and pavements make falls outside the home increasingly common for older adults.  

Each centigrade degree reduction below 18C in the UK has been found to correspond to an extra 3,500 deaths.

Therefore, older people may be more susceptible to the following health conditions in the colder weather:

 

Asthma

Cold air can negatively impact the respiratory tract, making it harder for people to breathe. This means any existing asthma sufferers or those with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease will be at greatest risk during a cold snap.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a group of lung conditions that typically impact middle-aged or older adults who smoke. Their breathing conditions gradually worsen and can be exacerbated in colder weather where they may find themselves shorter of breath and coughing more than usual.

Of all respiratory conditions, COPD is responsible for the largest number of deaths among older people, with ONS data showing that more than 250,000 people died from the condition between 2010 and 2018. Around 11,000 people died from asthma in the same time period.

 

Graph showing asthma deaths

Cold and flu

Cold homes are also likely to cause an increase in cases of cold and flu among older people, with their immune systems often weakening and being less effective in fighting off illness in colder weather.

While for many people, flu will typically get better on its own, it can make older people seriously ill, with a reported 2,775 deaths caused by flu among the over 60s between 2010 and 2018.

Graph showing cold and flue deaths

 

Depression and mental health conditions

A report exploring the relationship between mental wellbeing and how this may be impacted by living in cold and damp homes has found that there is a correlation between living in a cold home and the onset of mental health stressors, including depression.

Data finds that 1.4m older people in the UK often feel lonely, with more than two million people aged 70+ in England living alone. Elderly loneliness is often worse in the winter when it’s harder to get out and about and socialise, increasing the likeliness of depression among the older population.

With the cost of living crisis threatening to isolate the elderly, there are mounting concerns around the impact this could have on older peoples’ mental and physical wellbeing.

According to Age UK, one-in-four older people live with common mental health conditions, with depression being the most common mental health condition for older people, affecting 22 per cent of men and 28 per cent of women aged 65 and over.

Further analysis from Age UK in its Loneliness Report also shows that people over 50 are 2.3 times more likely to be often lonely if they have money issues that prevent them doing things they want to do. These statistics underline the importance of ensuring older people have the available income to undertake activities that will positively impact their mental wellbeing.

 

Elderly lady on stairs

Winter slips, trips and falls statistics for elderly people

Having a fall can happen to anyone, but as we get older, the likelihood of experiencing a fall increases and can result in injuries that can – in certain instances – prove fatal.

Around a third of people aged 65 and over and half of those aged 80+ are likely to have a fall at least once a year.

There are many reasons for falls among older people, including:

  • Poor balance
  • Muscle weakness
  • Visual impairment
  • Medication side effects
  • Environmental hazards

Environmental hazards including cold weather and icy or slippery floors are a primary concern during the winter, significantly increasing an older adult’s risk of a fall that could culminate in a preventable injury.

TakingCare notes a seasonal increase in inbound call volume from emergency alarms during periods of extreme weather, notably during the winter months as well as in July when we experience higher than average temperatures.

In 2020/21, data shows that 216,075 people aged 65 and over were admitted to hospital due to a fall, an average of 2,023 people per 100,000.

Graph showing Taking Care call volume

Calculations by TakingCare has found that wearing a personal alarm could save the NHS more than £17m per year, based on their call data. TakingCare’s Emergency Resolution Team can resolve calls by calling the wearer’s listed emergency contact or simply by the team handling the call themselves – often by simply providing reassurance over the phone.

In 2020, TakingCare was able to successfully resolve 25,000 calls without having to alert the emergency services, saving the NHS an estimated £17,754,702 (based on the average cost of an ambulance call out, A&E treatment and hospital overnight stay).

Guide to preventing falls

It’s important for older people to maintain their physical fitness during the winter months, even though it may be harder to get out and about, as those with a greater level of physical activity mitigate their risk of suffering a fall. For more advice on how to prevent falls for the elderly, check out this guide.

Preventing falls

 

Tips: Cold weather safety for elderly people

There are a number of ways in which older people can look after themselves this winter to protect their mental and physical wellbeing. Our resident Independent Living Expert Louise Yasities shares the following tips:

1. Keep moving

“Ensuring older people stay active during the colder months is really important, as we know the positive impact exercise has on our mental and physical health. There are lots of ways elderly people can move their bodies, even if they have long-term health conditions that can make moving more difficult.

A simple walk to the shops will help them stay active and ensure they’re getting some fresh air, but be mindful of weather conditions and make sure they don’t stay outside in the cold for prolonged periods of time."

Chair-based exercises are also a great way of promoting physical activity among older people, and these can be modified and adapted to suit the individual.

Louise Yasities, Independent Living Expert

 

2. Eat well

“Ensuring older people are eating a balanced, healthy diet is important in the winter. Cereals, soups, plenty of fruit and veg, hearty stews and hot beverages are all simple to prepare but will have a positive impact on our overall wellbeing – especially for older adults.

Planning ahead is vital in the colder weather, when it might be harder to get to the shops to pick up food for the day, so keeping the cupboards and freezer stocked with the basics is a good tip.”

 

3. Keep your home warm

There are real concerns that many older people won’t be able to heat their homes this winter due to the 80 per cent October 2022 energy price increase.

Louise Yasities, Independent Living Expert

“There is government support available for elderly, vulnerable households struggling to pay their bills this winter, including a one-off payment of £300 for all pensioner householders who already receive the Winter Fuel Payment and a Cost of Living Payment of £650 for low-income pensioners. 

Those qualifying for this payment are also eligible for further support including a Cold Weather payment of £25 when the average temperature drops below zero degrees for seven consecutive days, £140 off electricity bills through the Warm Home Discount Scheme and a free TV licence for those aged 75 and over."

Find out if you’re eligible for support by visiting:
gov.uk/guidance/getting-the-energy-bills-support-scheme-discount

Other tips to help keep your home warm (and save money) this winter include:

  • Keep your curtains open during daylight hours and close them when it gets dark to retain the heat.
  • Use timers for your central heating to ensure the house is warm at key times of day, such as when you wake up in the morning
  • Move furniture from in front of radiators, as this may be stopping hot air from circulating
  • Maximise roof insulation by checking if your cavity wall insulation needs replacing
  • Block out draughts with draught excluders to keep warmth in your home

 

Winter energy tips

For more tips, visit our guide to reducing energy bills.

Reduce energy bills

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