It’s the last day of August, and frankly I’m clinging to the hope that this pretty miserable summer will give us at least a few warm days this September before it’s done. So I really don’t want to be thinking about the cold dark days of winter which may be just a couple of months away.
But actually my working days at the moment are spent thinking about nothing else. For many older people, the onset of winter is not a good time, especially if your home is cold and poorly insulated or you cannot afford ever increasing fuel bills.
Over the last ten years, there have been around 26,700 additional deaths each winter, when compared to the other months of the year (ONS). The vast majority of these ‘excess winter deaths’ – more than ninety per cent – are among older people. There is also an associated increase in GP visits, hospital admissions and social care calls due to cold weather. This useful website gives a picture of the situation across England.
This ‘phenomenon’ (as the scientists call it – I prefer the term ‘disgrace’) has been well studied. We know, for example, that the primary risk factor is exposure to cold. And we know that 40 per cent of deaths are due to cardiovascular problems – heart attacks and strokes – and another 30 per cent to respiratory issues. Hypothermia is relatively rare, and influenza is generally only a significant factor when there is an epidemic.
We also know that many much colder countries have lower rates of excess winter deaths. Why? Because in countries like Sweden and Germany, people generally live in houses which are warm and well insulated, and people understand the importance of keeping warm. We in Britain, with our relatively temperate-but-unpredictable-and-still-often-quite-cold climate, have a housing stock which is notoriously energy inefficient (so a lot of heat just goes straight out through draughty windows and uninsulated lofts) and cultural norms (particularly among those brought up pre-1960s) which value fresh air and open windows.
What can we do? As part of our Spread the Warmth campaign this winter, Age UK will be letting older people know why and how they should protect their own health by keeping warm. We’ll be handing out recipe books with top tips, advice booklets and free room thermometers.
We’ll also be calling on local and national government to take steps to end this disgrace. They need to recognise that this is a massive public health issue for our nation, and invest in home insulation so that everyone can keep warm in winter.
We’re starting now, with a call to the Department of Health to repeat the successful Warm Homes, Healthy People funding they provided last year. This (relatively modest) programme provided funding for local projects to help vulnerable people keep warm through the winter. It included really simple ideas like providing emergency heaters to older people, carrying out home energy checks or even providing hot water bottles. These small things made a huge difference when the weather got cold.
We’re hoping for an announcement on this funding very soon, but in the mean time you can add your voice to our call here: