Ah, winter. The most wonderful time of the year! Unfortunately for those professions who deal with death and its aftermath, it is also the busiest time of the year.
Last year, the Office of National Statistics reported 525,000 deaths in England and Wales. Over half a million. Statistically, the winter months see an average of 27% more deaths than the non-winter months, with the majority of deaths occurring among those over 75 years old.
The fact that more people die during the chilliest season probably won’t come as much of a surprise, but the reasons behind it might.
It would be an easy assumption to make that this is down to the Great British Weather, however research has shown that it is not as simple as to blame a drop in the thermometer readings. So let’s consider what are the likely suspects for this increase? Why is it that an individual is more likely to be “no more” from December to March? To cease to be; to be bereft of life, to rest in peace; to be an ex-parrot. Too many sausage rolls? Drinking nothing but fortified wine? Can’t face yet another repeat of Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special? All potentially contributory factors but none of which are cause alone.
In fact, globally, the majority of countries suffer from “excess winter deaths” compared to their more temperate counterparts.
Whereas it would be a not unreasonable assumption to think that when the weather is cold outside we’re going to be much more likely to get ill, research has shown that is not actually the case. Indeed, there is no overall correlation between a cold winter and a rise in excess winter mortality.
“If we look at Scandinavian countries, which generally have much, much colder winters than we do, the number of excess deaths in those countries is much lower,” says Claudia Wells, head of mortality analysis at the Office for National Statistics. Indeed, the excess deaths in warmer countries such as Portugal and Spain are much higher. Yet both the Scandinavians and Southern Europeans have similar overall life expectancies.
Neither are winter deaths linked to socio-economic status. Whereas when you look at the year round average of mortality rates, there is a clear correlation between the deprivation in an area and the number of deaths, but the seasons alone do not have a monopoly on these statistics. Geographical evidence analysed by the BBC showed that in 2012, the relatively affluent county of West Sussex saw 48.3% more deaths occur during winter than the rest of the year. By contrast, there were no excess winter deaths that year in Ceredigion where one in five people are in fuel poverty.
While they say more research is needed to confirm the true cause, the researchers suggest a combination of medical care and will power could be at play.
Many studies have attempted to explain the phenomenon, with contributory factors varying from additional emotional stress, changes in physical environment (such as those travelling away from home to stay with friends or relatives) and changes in diet and alcohol intake to be to blame.
In a study published by the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers found that many patients delay medical care while the Christmas holidays are underway, and some may even hold off death to experience the festivities one last time. As a result, this could contribute to a delay in seeking treatment and exacerbating an illness.
So, whilst it would be foolish to say that the cold weather doesn’t play a part, it is perhaps not as deadly as some might expect. However, in general, it does remain true that if you live in the North East of England you have a higher risk of dying than if you live in London, where the death rate is the lowest in the UK (must be something in all those jellied eels and chim chiminey-ing).
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