Winter months remain deadlier for older US adults

Older US adults die at higher rates in the winter, while seasonal differences in mortality have disappeared or declined for other age groups.

Image credit: Anya Smith

In the USA, more deaths happen in the winter than the summer. But when deaths occur varies greatly by sex, age, cause of death, and possibly region. Seasonal differences in death rates can change over time due to changes in factors that cause disease or affect treatment.

Analyzing the seasonality of deaths can help scientists determine whether interventions to minimize deaths during a certain time of year are needed, or whether existing ones are effective. Scrutinizing seasonal patterns in death over time can also help scientists determine whether large-scale weather or climate changes are affecting the seasonality of death.

Now, Parks et al. show that there are age and sex differences in which times of year most deaths occur. Parks et al. analyzed data on US deaths between 1980 and 2016. While overall deaths in a year were highest in winter and lowest in summer, a greater number of young men died during summer – mainly due to injuries – than during winter. Seasonal differences in deaths among young children have largely disappeared and seasonal differences in the deaths of older children and young adults have become smaller. Deaths among women and men aged 45 or older peaked between December and February – largely caused by respiratory and heart diseases, or injuries. Deaths in this older age group were lowest during the summer months. Death patterns in older people changed little over time. No regional differences were found in seasonal death patterns, despite large climate variation across the USA.

The analysis by Parks et al. suggests public health and medical interventions have been successful in reducing seasonal deaths among many groups. But more needs to be done to address seasonal differences in deaths among older adults. For example, by boosting flu vaccination rates, providing warnings about severe weather and better insulation for homes. Using technology like hands-free communication devices or home visits to help keep vulnerable elderly people connected during the winter months may also help.