If main events of our lives were marked on a perpetual calendar and if we could see into the future, then the odds are up by 10 – 15% that we find the date for our last heartbeat marked on a day in the colder season. We may never be able to cheat death, but with the right knowledge, we may be able to advance that date by a few years.
Humans are, well, only human and differ in their reasoning, statisticians especially so. What is included in cold weather mortality rates? Thousands may die during a worldwide influenza epidemic, but can their deaths be directly linked to the aggravating effects of cold weather? Probably not. Someone gets lost on a skiing trip and dies of hypothermia. Is he or she part of the cold weather death rate? Most likely yes. The US directly attributes between 100 and 800 deaths a year to cold, depending on who issues the figures.
The guidelines on what constitutes a direct cause differ between countries and often between states. What is clear, however, is that the total number of deaths, directly and indirectly linked to the cold, increases significantly during a prolonged temperature drop below the average. The US numbers increased by more than 5,000 during a cold spell in 1983. Of course, the temperature average is relative to a region and people in a temperate climate suffer at much milder temperatures than those living in colder regions.
The Eurowinter Group highlights the regional differences. For each degree below 18°C, the mortality rate increased by 2.15% in Athens, but only by 0.27% in Finland. Once the temperature reaches 0°C or less, however, the mortality rate in Finland does rise significantly as well. In Yekaterinenburg, Russia, for example, an average 1.15% of the population died for every one degree drop below the freezing point.
The good news is that there’s a slow decline in the rate of excess mortality during cold weather. Citizens of wealthy nations can afford well-insulated housing and efficient heating systems. Nevertheless, for those days when it breaks down or you’re out of doors, you need to be aware of the ill effects of cold on your body.