Cold homes in temperate countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Portugal and Italy are causing more deaths in winter than colder climates.
A recent Australian study of presentations to emergency departments in Victoria for hypothermia between 2009 and 2016 showed a concerning trend of elderly people becoming ill from their cold homes.
It also concluded that pensioners who developed hypothermia indoors were more likely to die than younger people with dangerously low temperatures outside.
Massey University professor of public health and director of the Centre for Public Health Research, Jeroen Douwes, said the issue was also a worry in New Zealand which saw an increase in deaths each winter from cold homes.
New Zealand houses were often poorly designed, not insulated and had inadequate heat sources often causing vulnerable people, such as elderly, to develop hypothermia or infections which could be fatal.
“There’s a strong association between winter temperatures and increased mortality.”
In colder countries such as Canada and Sweden this was not an issue because the houses were constructed and heated appropriately in response to the freezing temperatures.
“Twenty years ago in New Zealand people would just say put on another jersey and you’ll be fine, well actually it isn’t fine and we know that.”
This mentality takes time to shift but also nothing will change if people can’t afford to insulate and heat their homes, Douwes said.
“Even if we do know it’s bad for you and do live in a house that’s cold, if you don’t have the financial resources to change it then what are you going to do?”
The government provides some assistance such as its Warmer Kiwi Homes initiative, Winter Energy Payments and legislation making under floor and ceiling insulation mandatory in rental properties.
“Whether that is sufficient remains to be seen. Insulation doesn’t make much difference unless you have a heating source you can use,” Douwes said.
“Houses need a combination of good insulation and heating…so the elderly don’t actually die during winter.
“Unfortunately if you live in a house that’s substandard you’re not necessarily going to have the financial means to make the change, you’ve still got to pay for electricity and other heat sources.”
There needs to be subsidies for heating and it would be beneficial if the government could help every home in the country to be insulated, he said.
“It’s a real issue. We’re a little bit worse than other temperate counties if you look at how many people are at risk.
“We’re talking about a large proportion of the population, we have an aging population.”
The Australian study, published in Internal Medicine Journal in April, found 217 people presented to emergency departments with hypothermia between 2009 and 2016 and, of those, 11 per cent died.
Nearly 80 per cent suffered hypothermia from being inside and most were elderly.