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Death by statistics

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Every winter we are told that cold kills the elderly. It’s an old journalist standby isn’t it? But are these claims true or do various charities and pressure groups use elderly deaths as marketing tools, as a surrogate rattle of the collecting tin?

For example, take this claim from patient.co.uk.

It will take more than simple education to reduce the estimated 30,000 deaths a year in the UK due to cold. Age concern estimates 8,000 more elderly will die for every time the temperature drops 1°C below average.


Where do these figures come from?

The first figure of 30,000 deaths a year in the UK due to cold is from the ONS which also shows a steady decline in excess winter deaths since the 1950s. So it’s good news – the problem has been improving for decades. Maybe it’s one of the many benefits of global warming?

The second sentence (8,000 deaths) seems to refer to this expert briefing by Professor James Goodwin Head of Research, Age UK (formerly Age Concern) which itself refers to a 1997 study by M Curwen. 
Curwen M, 1997. Excess winter mortality in England and Wales with special reference to the effects of temperature and influenza. The Health of Adult Britain 1841 -1994. Volume 1, 205 – 216. The Stationery Office.

So global warming will mitigate this issue too – assuming those climate scientists at the Met Office aren’t hopeless bunglers and all that global warming arrives on time. Yet deaths where hypothermia is mentioned on the death certificate(*) are rare according to this reply to Simon Hughes in the House of Commons.

*Although hypothermia may be mentioned on a death certificate as contributing to the death, according to International Classification of Diseases rules it cannot be recorded as the underlying cause.

Table 1: Number of deaths of persons aged over 65 years who died at home, where (a) hypothermia was the secondary cause of death, and (b) where hypothermia was mentioned anywhere on the death certificate( 1, 2), England and Wales, 1999 to 2008( 3)
Deaths (Persons)
(a) Secondary cause (b) Any mention
1999
26
36
2000
15
21
2001
16
27
2002
17
21
2003
18
22
2004
18
26
2005
17
27
2006
15
20
2007
14
21
2008
21
23
(1) Hypothermia was defined using the International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision (ICD-9) code 991.6 for the years 1999 to 2000, and the International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision (ICD-10) code T68, for the years 2001 to 2008.
(2) Deaths reported as (a) secondary cause are included in those reported as (b) any mention.
(3) Figures are for deaths registered in each calendar year.
Yes, cold is undoubtedly a contributing factor to deaths among the elderly, but hypothermia is very rare and the wider situation has improved markedly over my lifetime.

So sweet sherries all round!


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