Bad flu strain ‘partly to blame’ for rise in heart-related deaths last winter

The cold winter months are a time when heart-related deaths rise, but last winter these “excess” fatalities soared by 55% – in part because of a nasty flu strain, the British Heart Foundation said.

Last winter in England and Wales, an additional 11,500 people died from heart and circulatory diseases, like heart attack and stroke, compared to similar deaths in the warmer seasons, BHF said on Thursday after an analysis of new figures.

This represents about 650 excess heart-related winter deaths per week from December 2017 through March 2018, and is 55% higher than the 7,510 recorded in the same period in 2016/17.

The foundation said last year’s colder-than-average winter likely contributed to the “significant” increase, as did a strong winter flu strain coupled with a less effective vaccine.

As the winter chill sets in across the UK, BHF is urging anyone over 65 and people with existing heart or respiratory conditions to get vaccinated against the flu.

“Last winter took a grim toll on people with heart and circulatory diseases,” BHF senior cardiac nurse Christopher Allen said.

“It shows just how important high uptake of an effective flu jab is.

“We know that flu vaccines can reduce the risk of cardiovascular death in people living with coronary heart disease by around a quarter, so it is absolutely vital that people living with these conditions protect themselves.”

Mr Allen said research shows the elderly are more at risk in winter, and hoped Britons would check on their older relatives over the frosty months.

“Make sure that you reach out to your loved ones this festive period and check that they’re safe and warm,” he said.

“Small measures, such as keeping your home no lower than 18C and eating and drinking plenty of hot meals and drinks, can make all the difference.”

The flu weakens the respiratory system the heart relies on and people who have had a heart attack before are at greater risk of having another if they contract the virus, BHF said.

Meanwhile, cold temperatures are more dangerous for people with heart and circulatory diseases because the heart must work harder to keep the body warm.

This can lead to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, which can be particularly troublesome for people with an existing condition.

Cold temperatures can also cause changes to the blood and increase the risk of blood clots forming, which can cause a heart attack or stroke.

The new figures from the Office for National Statistics also showed that in total there were an estimated 50,100 extra winter deaths from December 2017 to March 2018, the highest in more than 40 years.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease accounted for 21.6% (10,800) of all winter deaths, the ONS figures revealed.

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