Health: Conquer the cold

LAST winter an extra 25,000 people died in England and Wales.

That figure sounds high enough – but it was actually a 30 per cent drop on the previous winter.

Despite the fact that it was the coldest winter period in 14 years, experts think there were fewer deaths because of lower levels of flu.

But it's still a figure which health bosses are keen to reduce.

Already the NHS has launched its Keep Warm, Keep Well campaign, and the messages have become even more important this week temperatures fell to record lows across Yorkshire.

Though scientists now think temperature alone cannot predict death rates, there is a clear link between the mercury dropping and mortality rising as more people die between December and March than in the summer months.

The risk is higher where people are not warm enough at home or outside, as research shows that very cold countries like Finland don't have high winter death rates because homes are better insulated and people are more prepared.

Between December 2009 and March 2010, there were an estimated 25,400 excess winter deaths in England and Wales.

Most were in those aged 75 and over and more women than men died.

Latest figures for Yorkshire are from the winter of 2008/9 and show a 40 per cent increase in excess winter deaths from the year before. In Leeds there were 370 extra deaths that winter.

However the additional deaths aren't from conditions directly related to the cold, such as hypothermia, they are linked to vascular diseases, heart disease and respiratory illnesses.

If they pick up cold or flu during the winter months, it can lead to serious or even fatal complications such as pneumonia and bronchitis.

In addition, feeling cold can also increase the risk of having a stroke or heart attack. The lung condition chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is made much worse by sharp drops in outside temperatures while damp conditions in the home aggravate respiratory and allergic illnesses such as bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma.

Older people are now being reminded that it is crucial they keep themselves warm.

Public Health Minister Anne Milton said: "The reduction in excess winter deaths last year is to be welcomed. We want to ensure that the NHS and the public are equally well prepared this year.

"We are working across Government on our cold weather plans. They are supported by our pledge to retain the winter fuel allowance, which will help people to keep homes warm. And we have turned the temporary increase in the Cold Weather Payments introduced by the last government into a permanent increase.

"Information to help vulnerable people keep warm and keep well, will be made available to GP surgeries and local organisations.

"The elderly, and those who are ill, are particularly vulnerable during cold weather. We all have a role to play in remembering the needs of friends, relatives and neighbours who could be at risk especially at this time of year."

In Leeds, a plan has been drawn up to help people in fuel poverty, that is those who spend more than 10 per cent of their income on heating and hot water.

People in fuel poverty are more at risk of becoming ill because of the cold as they may be worried about whether they can afford to heat their homes adequately.

Latest figures from 2009 show 22 per cent of private sector households in Leeds are in fuel poverty, with a slightly lower proportion in public sector housing.

The city's Affordable Warmth Strategy aims to tackle the problems linked to cold, damp homes by ensuring those in need are aware of schemes which could help them insulate and heat their homes more efficiently.

Meanwhile, everyone has been reminded to do their bit to ensure that those most likely to suffer the effects of the cold are alright during the extreme weather.

Regular checks on older people to make sure they are well, warm enough and have adequate food and medicines can be a lifeline.

Dr Ian Cameron, joint director of public health for Leeds, added: "It's particularly important for local people to keep an eye on neighbours who may be more vulnerable to the cold weather.

"Perhaps you could grit their driveway or offer to fetch them some food shopping or prescription medicines to save them going out in the cold weather.

"Even popping round for a cup of tea can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. We'd also encourage folk to pass on our advice about keeping warm, eating well and keeping active during the cold snap."

"I WOULD HAVE BEEN FROZEN"

WHEN his boiler broke down last winter, Frederick Hemmings was worried about how he was going to get it fixed.

The 71-year-old had experienced various problems with it and eventually it was condemned.

That left him with only a gas fire and an electric shower at his home in Harehills, nowhere near enough heating and hot water, especially for someone with arthritis, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Thankfully Health Through Warmth came to his rescue.

The scheme, along with funding from a charity and another scheme, paid for his boiler to be replaced.

Mr Hemmings said: "If they had not helped me out, I would have been frozen.

"Within four weeks I was able to keep warm. I am indebted to them.

"They did a very good job of helping me out."

Health Through Warmth was set up by Npower in partnership with the NHS and National Energy Action.

In Leeds it is run by home improvement organisation Care and Repair and provides funding which comes from Npower and can be topped up by other charity grants and schemes, and in some cases a contribution from the client.

The aim is to improve the living conditions of those who have illnesses related to the cold or damp and who don't have adequate heating or insulation.

Sharon Brooks, falls prevention co-ordinator at Care and Repair, said many people could have income just above the level of being eligible for means-tested benefits but could still be struggling.

Referrals can come from people themselves, the NHS, council social care workers or from the other services which Care and Repair provide.

Mrs Brooks said it was very important that the vulnerable groups of people they worked with kept warm.

"The colder you are, the more chance you have of having pneumonia, heart problems or a stroke," she said.

"If you are not able to keep yourself warm, it can contribute to further health problems."

Arthritis was also worsened by the cold, she added.

"If you are not warm and your arthritis is playing up, it can affect your mobility.

"If you are cold you have got more chance of having falls. It's not just about outside, but also inside."

Mrs Brooks said they had visited clients who were terrified of putting the heating on and were forced to wrap up in layer upon layer in their own homes.

"One of the things we are looking at is educating older people. Central heating does not cost as much as you think," she added.

"If it means putting on more cardigans or keeping the heating on, but on a lower level - the thing is to keep constantly warm."

For information about Health Through Warmth, call 0113 3918336 or log on to www.care-repair-leeds.org.uk for details of the scheme and others which Care and Repair runs to promote independent living.

TIPS FOR KEEPING WARM AND WELL

Keep warm by heating your home, especially your living room, to between 18 and 21 degrees celsius;

If you can't afford to heat every room, make sure the living room is warm enough and heat the bedroom before you go to bed;

Wrap up well by wearing layers of clothes rather than one thick layer. Especially wrap up well in bed, wearing a hat if necessary;

Eat at least one hot meal a day to keep up energy and warmth. Also drink plenty of non-alcoholic drinks;

Keep active. Even if it is too icy to go outside, do armchair exercises, housework or DIY;

Be aware of financial support for help with insulation, boiler repairs and other home improvements. Care and Repair on 0113 3918336 can help.

Ensure you are stocked up with prescription medicines, especially inhalers, and if you are eligible make sure you have your seasonal flu and PPV jabs.

Note important phone numbers such as NHS Direct on 0845 46 47 and West Yorkshire Urgent Care Services on 0345 605 99 99, gas, water and electricity suppliers, and friends, carers, relatives and neighbours.

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