Death warmed up: How Britain’s milder winters have ‘saved’ half a million lives

·3 min read
Swimmers in Tyneside braving the cold North Sea on Monday - Will Walker/North News
Swimmers in Tyneside braving the cold North Sea on Monday - Will Walker/North News

Half a million fewer people died in England and Wales as a result of cold weather as the climate warmed over the past 20 years, latest data from the Office for National Statistics has suggested.

Between 2001 and 2020, there was a decrease of 555,103 deaths associated with warm or cold temperature, about 27,000 a year, with the vast majority of the fall, 509,555, because of fewer people dying from the cold.

The Met Office has found that the period 1991-2020 was 0.9C warmer than the 1961-1990 average, while the 10 warmest years recorded have occurred since 2002.

To calculate what impact the changing temperature had on deaths, the ONS looked at how temperatures had impacted health conditions between 1990 and 2000, and calculated the change in the following two decades.

The figures showed that there were 108,722 extra hospitalisations associated with warm days over the period, but these did not lead to more deaths.

The ONS said that the findings confirmed climate change was affecting health in England and Wales, but said Britain’s temperate climate meant that the impact on deaths was limited and much of the health risk could be alleviated.

It added that improved insulation, the winter fuel allowance and flu vaccines may have already helped lower the cold weather deaths.

Observing future effects of climate change

Cold snap in Richmond Park, south-west London - Rick Findler/Story Picture Agency
Cold snap in Richmond Park, south-west London - Rick Findler/Story Picture Agency

Myer Glickman, a senior statistician at the ONS, said: “Our findings, looking at change between 2001 and 2020, show an increase in hospital admissions but a decrease in deaths due to rising average temperatures in the UK – the latter at least partly because of warmer winters.

“This is not surprising given our existing cool to temperate climate, but has to be seen in the context of strong evidence that the future effects of climate change will include prolonged heatwaves, flooding and other extreme events with consequent impacts on health.

“It will be important to develop more sensitive measures of the health impacts of climate change, for example on mental health and chronic diseases.”

Research has consistently shown that cold weather is far more lethal than hot weather. A 2015 study in The Lancet – looking at 384 locations in 13 countries, including the UK, Australia, the US and Spain – found that cold weather causes 17 times as many deaths as warm weather.

Out of 74 million deaths, 7.7 per cent were attributable to weather conditions, but 7.2 per cent were because of the cold and just 0.46 due to warm days.

Respirtory deaths drop

Cold weather can trigger respiratory and heart conditions, worsen dementia symptoms and depression, cause lethal injuries from slips, trips and falls, and increase car accidents.

The ONS study found that the biggest impact on mortality declines had come from falls in respiratory deaths, with 336,882 fewer deaths in the 20-year period compared to previous years.

There were also 270,280 fewer cardiovascular deaths and more than 100,000 fewer deaths from dementia of Alzheimer’s, with some conditions overlapping.

In contrast, warmer weather in Britain rarely reaches temperatures that cause direct heat-related harms, although it can lead to injuries from outdoor activities, as well as increase violence and mental health problems.

Previously, human-induced climate change was estimated to account for one per cent of heat-related deaths in Britain.

Experts had predicted reductions in cold-related mortality in colder areas, but believe these will be increasingly outweighed by the severity of warming temperatures.

The ONS warned that the analysis is retrospective and does not indicate future impacts of climate, from more heatwaves and extreme weather events which may cause greater harm.

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