Poverty not linked to winter deaths in elderly

Poverty is not strongly linked to winter deaths in elderly British people, finds new research in this week's BMJ.

Although Britain has a large burden of excess winter deaths, this study suggests that policies to relieve fuel poverty alone may only be partially successful.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine examined deaths in people aged 75 years or over, focusing on individual risk factors such as social and economic deprivation, sex, home heating, and previous health.

They found a substantial (around 30%) increase in winter death in this age group, but only female sex and a history of respiratory illness (asthma, emphysema, or pneumonia) were associated with winter death. Remarkably, socioeconomic deprivation was not strongly linked with winter death.

Instead, the risk of winter death seemed to be widely distributed in elderly people rather than being heavily concentrated in the most disadvantaged groups. Policy makers may find this at odds with current notions of vulnerability from fuel poverty, say the authors, particularly as the principal risk factor is low indoor temperature. This may be down to the construction of much social housing, and efforts by local authorities to improve home efficiency, suggest the authors.

The findings suggest that public health policies to reduce the burden of winter death in Britain will need to become broader based, and include additional measures to reach all those at risk, they conclude.


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