There were an estimated 25,700 excess winter deaths in England and Wales in 2010/11, virtually unchanged from the previous winter, according to a report issued today by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The pattern of excess winter deaths varied across England and Wales. In Wales there were 20 per cent more deaths in winter compared with the non-winter period, significantly higher than the England and Wales average of 17 per cent. However, there is little evidence of any consistent variation in excess winter mortality (EWM) across regions of England, and Wales.
Five areas showed an increase in EWM, the largest being the North East – 3.4 percentage points higher in 2010/11 compared with 2009/10, although this followed very low levels of EWM in the North East in the previous winter of 2009/10.
Five areas had a decrease in EWM – the North West, West Midlands, East of England, South East and South West, with the South West having the largest percentage point decrease between 2009/10 and 2010/11 at 2.7 per cent.
ONS said that EWM is associated with low temperatures but hypothermia was not the main cause. The majority of additional winter deaths were caused by circulatory diseases (such as cerebrovascular disease and ischaemic heart disease) and respiratory diseases.
As in previous years there were more excess winter deaths in females than males; between 2009/10 and 2010/11 male deaths rose to 11,200 and female deaths fell to 14,400.
According to the ONS report Excess winter mortality in England and Wales, 2010/11 (provisional) and 2009/10 (final) the number of extra deaths in the winter may not only depend on the temperature but also of the level of disease, particularly influenza, in the population. Exposure to cold or to influenza infection can be fatal to people who are already vulnerable because of these pre-existing health conditions.
The ONS report states that given the cold weather experienced in 2010/11 and the relatively high levels of influenza-like illness we might have expected the number of excess winter deaths to be higher. However it is possible that the influenza vaccination programme and improvements in home insulation and central heating may have reduced expected higher figures.
Previous research has shown that within Europe, Portugal, with its mild winters, had the highest EWM and Finland, a country with very cold winters, had the lowest. Studies suggest EWM may be higher in countries with a warmer winter climate because people there take fewer precautions against the cold. For example, their homes are less well insulated and they are less likely to wear warm protective clothing in cold weather.
Also released today is Health Statistics Quarterly (HSQ) – No 52, Winter 2011 and which contains articles The Effect of lengthening life expectancy on future pension and long-term care expenditure in England , 2007 to 2032 and Trends in socio-economic inequalities in female mortality, 2001-08. Intercensal estimates for England and Wales .
ONS defines the winter period as December to March, historically the coldest months in England and Wales, and compares the number of deaths in this winter period with the average number of deaths occurring in the preceding August to November and the following April to July. More details about the methodology for calculation of excess winter deaths and the excess winter mortality index is shown in the statistical bulletin, available on the ONS website.
Figures for excess winter deaths in 2010/11 are based on provisional data.
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Next publication: November 2012
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