A new population study out of British Columbia finds that the elderly are most at risk of death due to hypothermia.
Using mortality records from the British Columbia Vital Statistics Agency, the authors determined that from 1998 to 2012 there were 384 deaths in B.C. where hypothermia was identified as either an underlying or contributing cause. Of these, 26 were elderly residents (75 years of age and older, for the purposes of the study) which represents 1.6 deaths per 100,000 elderly residents of B.C.
“Most hypothermia-related mortalities in decedents less than 75 years of age occurred in locations other than the home, hospital or residential institution,” say the study’s authors, “whereas a hospital was the most common location of death among older people.”
Along with advanced age, use of alcohol and drugs was found to play a factor in a number of B.C.‘s hypothermia related deaths. The highest crude mortality rates of hypothermia were found in rural and remote areas of the province.
Hypothermia is a condition where the body’s temperature stays below normal (typically, below 35 degrees celsius) for an extended period of time. Symptoms associated with hypothermia include sleepiness, slowed or slurred speech, weak pulse and stiffness in arms and legs.
The elderly are more vulnerable to hypothermia for a number of reasons. As we age, the body’s ability to regulate temperature and to sense cold decreases. As well, the elderly are often burdened with medical conditions and drug regimens that affect temperature regulation.
Hypothermia can hit in many different environments, not only in the dead of winter. According to a report by the CBC, being caught in a heavy rain on a cool day can run the risk of hypothermia if you stay in wet clothes for too long. Even exercising outdoors in cool weather can be a concern – you may feel warm because your body has been working hard, but once you stop exercising, your body will cool down quickly, especially if you are sweating.
One of the most dangerous scenarios is being immersed in cold water, as water is 25 more heat conductive than air. Fall into an icy river or lake and hypothermia can develop within 15 minutes.
Mortality rates due to hypothermia in B.C. prove to be similar to those found in other regions. Overall, the 0.60 per 100,000 rate is higher than what has been reported in the United States were seen to be 0.20 per 100,000 but lower than that for the Republic of Ireland (1.81 per 100,000).
The study’s authors say that little is known about mortality caused by hypothermia in Canada and that more work is needed to better estimate the problem and its effects on various segments of the population. “We need to promote better understanding of vulnerabilities and at-risk populations and facilitate a better understanding of why people die from hypothermia in Canada.”
The study was conducted by Joanne Stares of the Canadian Public Health Service and Tom Kosatsky of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.