But Age UK says improving energy efficiency could help save lives and money.
Cold homes are costing the NHS in England £1.36 billion every year in hospital and primary care due to their devastating impact on older people’s health, according to new analysis by Age UK.
In its new report ‘The Cost of Cold’, published today, the charity warns of a hidden public health scandal as thousands of older people continue to die prematurely from cold-related illnesses because their homes are too cold.
Hypothermia is not the biggest killer
Each year there are around 27,000 excess winter deaths, most of them among older people and caused by respiratory problems, strokes and heart-attacks due to cold temperatures – 15 times the number of road accident fatalities every year. For each death, there are many more people who become seriously ill, needing hospitalisation in the short term and social care in the longer term.
Yet public awareness of this is low: new findings for Age UK show that two-fifths of people see hypothermia as the biggest threat to older people’s health in winter despite it accounting for only 1 in 100 excess winter deaths. In fact, the most common risk factor is cardiovascular diseases – strokes caused by blood-clotting or heart attacks – which account for 40% of excess winter deaths.
8,000 extra deaths for every 1 degree drop in average temperature
Even in relatively mild winters, there are around 8,000 extra deaths for every one degree drop in average temperature.
Cold homes are particularly dangerous to older people’s health and are a major contributing factor to excess winter deaths. People living in the coldest homes are three times as likely to die from a cold-related illness compared to those in warmer homes.
The prevalence of poorly insulated homes coupled with sharp increases in energy prices over recent years has exacerbated the UK’s growing fuel poverty problem, forcing many older people to cut back on their heating in a bid to control costs.
Find out how you can Spread the Warmth this winter
This scandal can be stopped
The new report argues that this scandal can be halted: other much colder countries such as Finland have significantly lower death rates than the UK largely due to better insulated homes and greater awareness of the importance of keeping warm.
Through its annual Spread the Warmth campaign, Age UK is calling on the government to:
- Make excess winter deaths a national health priority to drive funding into preventative services
- Tackle the problem of cold homes with a rigorous programme of home energy efficiency improvements; carbon tax revenues from next year would be enough to fund energy efficiency measures which would remove 87 per cent of households from fuel poverty over the next 15 years
Michelle Mitchell, charity director general at Age UK said: 'It’s an absolute scandal that tens of thousands of older people will become ill or die this winter because they are unable to keep warm. Not only is this resulting in an incalculable human cost, but the NHS is spending more than a billion pounds on treating the casualties of cold every year.
'At the root of the problem are badly insulated homes, which together with cripplingly high energy prices, are leaving millions of older people having to choose between staying warm and energy bills they can afford.
Age UK is calling on all local authorities to recognise the issue as a major health priority and make sure they are doing everything within their power to keep older people warm.
Mitchell continued: 'The government must also invest in a major energy efficiency programme to help insulate older people against the cold weather and the high cost of energy.'
Advice to keep older people healthy in winter
Age UK is promoting simple steps to help older people understand why and how to protect their health by keeping warm in winter:
- It’s harder to judge temperatures as you get older. Use a thermometer to detect changes and act quickly. Keep your living room at 70°F (21°c) if possible.
- Exposure to the cold during the night puts you at greater risk of a heart attack or a stroke. Keep your bedroom at 65°F (18°c).
- It’s a common misconception that sleeping with the window open all year round is healthy. Keeping windows open on a winter night puts you at greater risk of a heart attack or a stroke. Keep your bedroom windows closed at night.
- Protect your fingers, mouth and head – these parts of your body are more sensitive to changes in temperature. Breathing in cold air can increase your chances of becoming seriously ill. Wrap up well when you go outside.
Dreda, aged 94, said: 'When I was young, being cold wasn’t an issue, it never occurred to me it could be a problem. But as I’ve got older staying warm has become my priority. Being older, and less active, it’s so hard to ward off the cold.'
Help Spread the Warmth this winter
Older people and their families can call Age UK Advice for free on 0800 169 65 65, where they can also order our free Winter wrapped up guide (PDF, 733kb), including a free thermometer.
If you would like to help older people this winter, or make a donation, visit www.spreadthewarmth.org.uk or call 0800 169 87 87 to find out how you can get involved.