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Cold homes costing NHS £1.36 billion

Published on 22 November 2012 12:30 AM

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.(1)

In its new report ‘The Cost of Cold',(2) 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.

Each year there are around 27,000 excess winter deaths,(3) 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(4). 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 (5) despite it accounting for only one in 100 excess winter deaths (6). 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 (7).

Even in relatively mild winters, there are around 8,000 extra deaths for every one degree drop in average temperature(8). 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 (9). The prevalence of poorly insulated homes (10) 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.

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 (11) 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% of households from fuel poverty over the next 15 years (12).

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. We are 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. 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.'

Age UK is promoting simple steps to help older people understand why and how to protect their health by keeping warm in winter:

1. 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.

2. 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).

3. 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.

4. 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.'

Older people and their families can call Age UK Advice for free on 0800 169 65 65, where they can also order a free copy of ‘Winter wrapped up' with a free thermometer. Alternatively they can visit www.spreadthewarmth.org.uk to download the guide, get more information about the Spread the Warmth campaign and find out where their local Age UK office or shop is. There are lots of ways to help Age UK Spread the Warmth this winter. People can make a donation simply by calling 0800 169 87 87 or visiting www.spreadthewarmth.org.uk.

-Ends-

Media contact: Vicky Smith/Helen Spinney                                              Telephone: 0203 033 1438/ 0203 033 1713                                                        Out of hours: 07071243243

Notes to editors

1 Age UK's calculation based on the method described in South East Regional Public Health Group Factsheet (2009) Health and Winter Warmth. This made use of a calculator produced by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health to estimate the total cost to the NHS in England arising from cold homes. Age UK updated their figure (£859 million) using 2011 household numbers estimates for England (Office for National Statistics) and the GDP deflator (from HM Treasury's website) to inflate the estimates to 2011/12 prices.

2 For a PDF or hard copy of the report, please email media@ageuk.org.uk.

3 The average figure for the past 10 years for England and Wales is 26,700. This figure is calculated by comparing deaths during the winter months (December to March) with deaths occurring at other times of the year. NEW figures for winter 2011-12 are due to be published by the Office of National Statistics on Thursday 29 November 2012.

4 Excess winter deaths in England and Wales, winter 2012-11: 25,700. Road accident fatalities in England and Wales, 2011: 1,715 (source: Department for Transport).

5 Survey base 1,000 adults aged 16+. Source: Charity Awareness Monitor, September 2012, nfpSynergy. 38% of respondents selected "Hypothermia" from a prompted list when asked "Which of the following do you think poses the greatest risk to the health of older people in winter?"

6 M. Curwen (1997) ‘Excess Winter Mortality in England and Wales with Special Reference to the Effects of Temperature and Influenza' in The Health of Adult Britain 1841-1994.

7 GC Donaldson and WR Keatinge (1997) ‘Early Increases in Ischaemic Heart Disease Mortality Dissociated from and Later Changes Associated with Respiratory Mortality after Cold Weather in South East England', Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

8 Chief Media Officer Annual Report, 2009.

9 Marmot Review Team (2011), The Health Impacts of Cold Homes and Fuel Poverty. 10 10% of all dwellings in England fail the ‘decent homes' criteria because they do not provide adequate thermal comfort (this figure rises to 16% in the private sector). Source: English Housing Survey, 2012.

11 Spread the Warmth is Age UK's annual winter campaign. Launched in 2012 in response to the needless deaths of more than 200 older people per day in the cold weather, Spread the Warmth aims to stop unnecessary suffering and preventable winter deaths. Last winter we helped we helped thousands of older people who were struggling , providing them with emergency food packages, warm and nutritious meals, blankets and heaters, energy-efficiency advice, heating grants, phone calls and home visits to those who were isolated, and free information and advice about keeping warm.

12 P. Washan (2012), Energy Bill Revolution Campaign Report, Camco. Age UK has joined the Energy Bill Revolution campaign to call for urgent government action to improve home energy efficiency: http://www.energybillrevolution.org. The charity has also signed up to the Met Office Cold Weather Alert Service for the second year running to warn older people of imminent cold snaps so they can make essential preparations to stay warm and well this winter.

For media enquiries relating to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland please contact the appropriate national office: Age Scotland on 0131 668 8055, Age Cymru on 029 2043 1562 and Age NI on 028 9024 5729.

About Age UK: Age UK is the new force combining Age Concern and Help the Aged, dedicated to improving later life. We provide free information, advice and support to over six million people; commercial products and services to well over one million customers; and research and campaign on the issues that matter to people in later life. Our work focuses on five key areas: money matters, health and well being, home and care, work and training and leisure and lifestyle. We work with our national partners, Age Scotland, Age Cymru and Age NI (together the Age UK Family), our local Age UK partners in England and local Age Concerns. We also work internationally for people in later life as a member of the DEC and with our sister charity Help Age International. Age UK is a charitable company limited by guarantee and registered in England (registered charity number 1128267 and company number 6825798). Age Concern England and Help the Aged (both registered charities), and their trading and other associated companies merged on the 1st April 2009. Together they have formed the Age UK Group ("we"). Charitable services are offered through Age UK and commercial products are offered by the Charity's trading companies, which donate their net profits to Age UK (the Charity).

Last updated: Oct 06 2017

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