Cold spells caused 6,000 extra deaths last winter from heart attack and stroke

16 December 2016        

Category: Research

Wintery scene

BHF research reveals three day chill doubles risk of heart attack and stroke compared with shorter cold ‘snaps’ 

An extra 5,900 people died from cardiovascular disease (CVD) in England and Wales during the winter in 2015/16, according to the latest statistics.

Every week 350 people died from heart attack and stroke between December and March - a 14 per cent rise on the rest of the year.

Funding research

To help better understand this trend, we funded new research at University College London and the University of Bristol which has shown that CVD events such as heart attack and stroke are nearly twice as likely (86 per cent increase) to occur during cold spells of three days rather than during shorter, colder periods. 

The researchers say this effect could occur at any time of year, but especially in winter months. The risk of a CVD event during a cold spell was more pronounced in patients who smoked and drank alcohol.

Know who is at risk

Experts are now urging health care workers, family members and GPs to be extra vigilant in identifying vulnerable people who are at increased health risks during the winter months.

While deaths from CVD increase during the winter months, little is known about the type of variations in temperature needed to have a harmful effect on health. During particularly cold weather, the BHF, alongside Public Health England as part of its Stay Well this Winter campaign, is warning vulnerable people, such as heart patients and the elderly, to look after their health and keep warm.

Be prepared for cold weather

Dr Mike Knapton, our associate medical director said:

“Cold weather kills and these figures paint a worrying picture for winter in the UK. The strong spike in deaths from heart attacks and strokes during prolonged cold spells highlights the need for research into the factors that specifically increase people’s risk in the winter and how people can reduce it.

“People with chronic heart disease are around 11 times more likely to die if they develop flu compared to healthy individuals. Therefore it is particularly important that people living with heart conditions are well prepared, keep warm during the winter, make sure they have enough food and medications in stock and have a flu jab.”

Professor Richard Morris, from the University of Bristol, who led the research, said: 

“Earlier research has shown that people die more often in winter than other times of year, even in countries with warmer climates than the UK. 

“Significantly we have found that spells of three or four days of unusually cold weather approximately doubled the risk of a major cardiovascular event, although more research is needed to understand why. Some factors made people especially vulnerable such as being a smoker or a heavy drinker. 

“Health care workers need to be able to identify vulnerable people living in cold homes, and to be able to refer them to a local support service where their needs for affordable warmth can be addressed.”

 Find out more about keeping your heart healthy