It’s that time of year again: the nights are drawing in and winter is here. Sadly, each winter 1 older person dies every 7 minutes from the cold weather and many more become seriously ill.
How does the cold affect the health of older people?
You might think that the cold is a major cause of hypothermia. That’s a myth. Very few deaths amongst older people in the winter are from hypothermia. The lethal effects of the cold strike much before the body gets that cold. Cold temperatures not only increase the likelihood and severity of flu and respiratory problems, but being cold also thickens the blood and increases blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Why are older people particularly at risk?
As we get older it becomes harder for our bodies to maintain body temperature. This is because we become less efficient at responding to and recovering from exposure to the cold.
70-80% of our ability to produce heat comes from our muscles, however from the age of 55 we lose 1% of muscle mass every year. As the weather gets colder we need more energy to keep warm but our bodies’ ability to generate heat falls with age.
Older people that live in a cold home are particularly at risk. The body reacts to a cold environment by raising blood pressure which is a big risk to health. If an older person lives in a cold home then goes outside in cold weather, their blood pressure raises putting further strain on the heart.
How you can support older people
Age UK research has shown that there is a general lack of awareness of the effects that cold weather can have on an older person’s health. There is a widely held belief that leaving a window open on a cold winters night to let in fresh air is good for your health, whereas that opposite is true – breathing in cold air lowers body temperature and can increase the risk of chest infections. That’s why it’s so important to wrap up warm when going outside into the cold weather.
The good news is that there are simple steps that older people can take to keep warm and well this winter. When you come in contact with an older person, encourage them to:
- Keep their bedroom temperature to at least 64°F (18°C) and their living room at 70°F (21°C).
- Keep their bedroom window closed at night and wrap up well when leaving the house.
- Contact Age UK to find out what services exist and find out what financial and practical support is available to them through the winter.
For more information about how to identify older people at risk, and the support available visit ageuk.org.uk/winterhealth.