Winters in Australia can be incredibly cold – making the need for heating in homes paramount for older generations – but a new study has claimed colder conditions are far more detrimental to people’s health than some may believe, with the elderly in particular at severe risk of hypothermia.
The alarming study, conducted across the The Alfred and Sandringham emergency departments in Victoria, revealed a huge number of older Aussies are dying in hospital of hypothermia, after first contracting it while living in their own homes.
Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing dangerously low body temperatures which can first lead to irritability and confusion but later, weak or absent respiration and even death.
Surprisingly, the research published in the Internal Medicine Journal, found 217 people were admitted to the emergency departments with hypothermia between 2009 and 2016 – with 11 per cent of those dying. Meanwhile, a whopping 80 per cent of the patients were found indoors and were more likely to be elderly with several health conditions.
The severity of the issue was first alerted to doctors during 2015 when Victoria experienced its coldest winter in 26 years.
“There was a real run of these patients which made us interested in seeing any patterns of the hypothermia presentations,” general medicine physician at The Alfred, Dr Ananda-Rajah, said.
As part of the study, researchers analysed data from patients with body temperatures lower than 35 degrees who were admitted to The Alfred and Sandringham hospital emergency departments.
The team of doctors found the majority of cases (72 per cent) occurred during the colder months (late autumn to early spring) but notably 12 per cent occurred during summer.
One factor revealed was that certain medications as well as older age affected the ability of the body to raise is own temperature, while elderly patients who had heart failure, cancer, chronic kidney disease and sepsis infection were especially likely to die in hospital from hypothermia.
“We found that 27 per cent of patients coming in with hypothermia had an infection brewing,” Ananda-Rajah explained.
“In a significant number of these patients it probably wasn’t appreciated that they had what’s called ‘cold’ sepsis rather than sepsis associated with a fever as infection usually appears. Doctors and clinicians should really think about infection as a cause of hypothermia and manage it appropriately.”
Speaking of the seriousness of the issue, Ananda-Rajah claimed the instances that led to hypothermia need to be explored more to ensure Australia’s elderly are kept warm and comfortable in their own homes.
“Questions must be asked as to why these people are developing this condition, particularly the elderly who are indoors,” she added.
“Do they have adequate heating and homes that are well-insulated? Are they wearing adequate clothing? Are they able to afford heating?”