A post claiming that 30,000 British pensioners freeze to death every year has been shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook.
Depending on exactly how you count it, this figure is in roughly the right ballpark for the number of “excess winter deaths” in Great Britain. Looking at the average over a number of recent years, it is an underestimate.
But while cold weather is a major contributor to these deaths, it’s an exaggeration to say that they are all a result of people ‘freezing to death’. The increase in deaths can be due to a number of causes (such as the severity of influenza outbreaks) and can be influenced by a wide range of factors.
In 2018/19, there were an estimated 25,260 excess winter deaths according to official statistics across Great Britain (England and Wales and Scotland). Across Great Britain in 2018/19, at least 18,570 of these deaths were people aged 75 and older. Figures from Northern Ireland aren’t yet available for this year so we can’t look at the full picture across the UK.
The ONS does not classify excess winter deaths by pension age in England and Wales.
The latest figures from Northern Ireland estimate that there were 1,500 excess winter deaths in 2017/18. In total there were 55,720 in the whole of the UK in 2017/18, at least 42,250 of which were in people aged 75 and older.
The number of excess deaths estimated in 2018/19 is less than half the number in 2017/18 (even if you just look at Great Britain). However, it is common to have large fluctuations in the estimated number of excess winter deaths between years. To account for this discrepancy, it is preferable to use the average of all estimates over the last five years. In Great Britain, the average number of excess winter deaths over the last five years was 39,142.
Excess winter deaths are calculated as the difference in the number of deaths over three months of winter compared to the three months before and after this period.
While these deaths are not the result of older people literally ‘freezing to death’ as the post claims, they are linked to the colder weather during the winter months. The leading cause of excess winter deaths in 2018/19 was respiratory disease, followed by dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The Facebook post also refers to the 39 people found dead in a lorry container in Essex on 23 October 2019.