Scotland

Woolly hats and turning up heating 'could save lives' in winter

Pensioner in snow Image copyright PA

Taking simple precautions such as wearing a woolly hat and turning up the heating could save your life this winter, according to experts.

They are warning that more people die in countries with warmer winters simply because they allow themselves to get too cold.

The winter death rate of Athens is far higher than that of Finland.

A study showed that in Athens, just 13% of people surveyed wore a hat in winter while in Finland 72% wore hats.

There is a clear relationship between the outdoor temperature and death rates, with most countries having a winter death toll which is 5-30% higher than normal.

In Scotland this amounts to about 350 extra deaths per week, but most of these deaths are not due to flu or hypothermia.

Less insulation

Cold temperatures cause changes to the composition of the blood. It makes you more likely to have a heart attack as the red cell count, plasma cholesterol and plasma fibrinogen all increase.

Viral, bacterial and respiratory infections also mostly occur in winter. Half of all the extra winter deaths are due to heart disease and conditions that affect the blood supply to the brain, the other half to respiratory disorders.

Image caption Dr Catherine Calderwood said people in warmer countries do not insulate their homes as well as those in colder ones

However, Finland, with February temperatures averaging about -6C, has a death rate which is one third that of Portugal where, at the same time of year, temperatures average about 15C.

The reason appears to be simple: in warmer countries homes have less insulation against the cold and people wear fewer clothes outdoors.

Research suggests that in Athens, when it was 7C, the average living room temperature was 19.2 C, and 13% of people wore hats outdoors.

In Finland, when it was 7C, the average living room temperature was 21.7% and 72% of people wore hats outdoors.

The winter death rate of Athens is far higher than that of Finland.

The same phenomenon is seen across society as a whole - with no difference between richer and poorer areas.

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Media captionResearchers are warning that more people die in countries with warmer winters simply because they allow themselves to get too cold

It also occurs in the UK. Scotland has proportionately fewer winter deaths than other parts of the UK. Wales and Northern Ireland have fewer than England.

Experts say excess winter deaths could be reduced substantially with warmer homes, and if people wore more warm clothes outside.

Dr Catherine Calderwood, chief medical officer for Scotland, said: "We know that there are more deaths in winter in all countries but what's a very interesting paradox is that if you live in a country that is warm for the rest of the year there are more deaths in winter in those countries, even at higher temperatures.

"We think that this is because people don't insulate their homes as well in warmer countries and also that they don't take other precautions when they are going outside, so they are not wearing the right clothes, hats and gloves, so they are much more exposed to those colder temperatures."

Speaking about the differences between Scotland and England, Dr Calderwood said: "We think we are just better at looking after ourselves in the colder weather."

So the best thing you can do to protect yourself this winter is to wear hats, windproofs and waterproofs, and make sure your home is well heated.

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