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Fuel Poverty and Excess Winter Deaths

Nearly 90 per cent of all excess winter deaths are of people over the age of 65. Older people are particularly at risk of dying during the winter as they are often less resilient to cold-related illnesses, especially people with existing health problems.

For every degree Celsius that winter is colder than average, an extra 8000 deaths result.

Britain has one of the highest rates of excess winter deaths in Europe

Excess Winter Deaths are defined by the Office of National Statistics. They are the difference between the number of deaths during the four winter months (December to March) and the average number of deaths during the preceding autumn (August to November) and the following summer (April to July).

Exposure to the cold does affect the number of winter deaths, but it is very unusual for the cold to kill people directly. In the main these deaths are from respiratory or cardio-vascular ailments. Overall deaths are from heart attacks, strokes, bronchial and other conditions, and may often occur several days after exposure to the cold. Spending too long in the cold will lower the body temperature which can often aggravate circulatory diseases, which can lead to strokes and heart attacks or respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis or pneumonia.

Other reasons why older people are particularly at risk

Older people with existing health problems are more at risk, so they need to take extra care when it is cold.

Older people are less able to judge if they are warm or cold, meaning they may not put on an extra jumper or put on the heating before they get too cold.

Many older people tend to live in older houses with inefficient heating systems and/or no insulation. This makes it harder to heat their homes.

Older people often try to cut their energy bills by reducing the amount of heating they use or choosing to wrap up warm instead.

Older people on low incomes spend up to 30 per cent less on food than is needed for a healthy balanced diet. This puts their physical and mental well-being at risk and could make them more vulnerable to the cold.

Deaths from Cold Related Illnesses

The number of additional deaths (or excess winter deaths) occurring in winter varies depending on temperature and the level of disease in the population, as well as other factors. The elderly experience the greatest increase in deaths each winter.

24,650 people over 65 died in 2005/2006. During that period 2.5 million households were in fuel poverty.

There is a danger that with fuel poverty levels rising to 5.5 million in 2007 this figure could seriously increase especially if there is a Flu epidemic such as the one in 1999/2000 where there were approximately 59,000 excess winter deaths.