Winter mortality in a warming climate: a reassessment

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Abstract

In temperate climates, mortality is higher in the winter than the summer. Most wintertime deaths are attributed to cardiovascular and respiratory disease, with hypothermia from extreme cold accounting for a negligible share of all recorded deaths. International and national assessments of the health risks of climate change often conclude that increased temperatures from climate change will likely reduce winter mortality. This article examines the support for this hypothesis. We find that although there is a physiological basis for increased cardiovascular and respiratory disease mortality during winter months, the limited evidence suggests cardiovascular disease mortality is only weakly associated with temperature. Although respiratory disease mortality shows a stronger seasonal relationship with colder temperatures, cold alone does not explain infection rates. Further, respiratory disease mortality is a relatively small proportion of winter deaths. Therefore, assuming no changes in acclimatization and the degree to which temperature-related deaths are prevented, climate change may alter the balance of deaths between winters and summers, but is unlikely to dramatically reduce overall winter mortality rates. WIREs Clim Change 2013, 4:203–212. doi: 10.1002/wcc.211

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