Eat or heat’s tragic consequences

The heat or eat conundrum facing many older Australians living in cooler regions and struggling to make ends meet is being answered in devastating fashion.

A study has found that pensioners are being treated for hypothermia in alarming numbers – with the cost of heating and thermally inefficient housing to blame.

The study – released as the temperatures plummet in many states – found that 87 per cent of hypothermic elderly hospital emergency patients had been indoors, but had been too concerned about the cost of heating to warm their living space. Twenty-three of those people died.

The finding was contained in a study of 217 hypothermic emergency presentations to Alfred Health between 7 July 2009 and 1 September 2016 – a period that included a record-breaking cold winter in 2015.

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low temperature. Normal body temperature is around 37°C; hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops below 35°C.

The condition is particularly dangerous for older people because their body’s response to cold can be compromised by underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, some medicines including over-the-counter cold remedies, and ageing itself. As a result, hypothermia can develop in older adults after even relatively mild exposure to cold conditions.

The study found that more than half (59 per cent) of the patients who presented to The Alfred, Sandringham and Caulfield hospitals with hypothermia lived alone and had few social supports. Almost three-quarters (71 per cent) were on a pension.

“The finding that 87 per cent of our hypothermic elderly patients were found indoors is concerning,” said author Dr Michelle Amanda-Rajah in the study, which was published in the Internal Medicine Journal.

Dr Amanda-Rajah questioned whether economic deprivation, such as being able to afford heating, or behavioural factors, such as wearing enough clothing or even thermally inefficient housing, was to blame.

“With rising energy costs a contentious issue in Australia, further population-based studies are warranted,” she said.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos also said the findings were concerning.

“It’s very concerning that there are some members of our community who are obviously anxious about turning on their heating,” she said. “Our government is certainly conscious of the pressures around energy costs.”

Public health campaigns in Australia have traditionally focused on the effects of extreme heat, but recent multi-country research suggests illness and mortality associated with hypothermia was “significant and underappreciated”, the study concluded.

Thermally inefficient housing, the cost of heating and wearing insufficient clothing were blamed for the number of pensioners presenting to emergency departments in Victoria.

The Australian Council of Social Service said in its 2018 Poverty in Australia report that just over three million people (13.2 per cent) of Australians were living below the poverty line – “$433 a week for a single adult living alone or $909 a week for a couple with two children”.

The Age Pension, with supplements, is $463 a week for a single and $698 a week for a couple.

YourLifeChoices’ 2019 Insights Survey, answered by 7709 respondents, asked if the Government doing enough to support retirees? Almost 73 per cent said no while another 19 per cent were unsure. Asked if the Age Pension was enough to live on, 80 per cent said no.  

Are you concerned about your heating bills this winter? Do you try to rug up rather than turn on the heating?

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Written by Janelle Ward

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