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Spike in winter deaths down to flu and dementia in older people, experts claim

A surge in deaths in the early part of 2015 was likely down to an increase in flu and dementia related deaths among older people, experts have claimed.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has analysed death figures after provisional 2015 data showed the biggest yearly increase in deaths since 1968, and the highest overall number of deaths since 2003.

A total of 529,613 deaths were registered in England and Wales last year – up by 28,189 deaths, or 6%, on 2014 levels.

The ONS analysis showed most - 86% - of the extra deaths occurred in the over-75s. 

The increase was mainly down to a sharp rise in deaths in the early part of the year, which coincided with peak flu activity for the 2014/15 season, ONS experts said, with 11,865 of the extra deaths registered in January alone. 

The report also notes that deaths from respiratory disease in people aged 75 and over were ‘far higher than the five-year average in the first few months of 2015’, and that there were ’higher than expected numbers of admissions to hospital and intensive care for flu’, along with ’evidence that the flu vaccine was less effective than in previous years’.

Added to this more people died from dementia than usual, with numbers well above the five-year average – particularly between January and March.

‘The reasons for this may be partly related to attempts across the health system to improve the diagnosis of people with dementia,’ the ONS report stated, adding that the seasonal pattern ‘may be related to the greater vulnerability of people with these conditions to respiratory disease, difficulties with self-care and falls, all of which may be more important in winter months’.

Claudia Wells, head of mortality analysis at the ONS, said: ‘The majority of the increase in deaths in 2015 happened during the first few months of the year, coinciding with an increase in hospital admissions for flu and reports of numerous outbreaks of the virus in care homes.

‘Respiratory diseases, such as flu, were also mentioned in a third of deaths from dementia and Alzheimer’s last year. The number of deaths where dementia and Alzheimer’s were listed as the underlying cause have been steadily increasing over the last 15 years, but were well above the five-year average in 2015.’

Professor John Newton, chief knowledge officer at Public Health England, said: ‘A range of factors can push up the number of deaths in older people in a particular year. An outbreak of flu can have a big impact, especially on those who are most vulnerable or experiencing other illnesses, such as dementia.’

However, Professor Newton downplayed the long-term impact, adding that ‘we have seen these annual fluctuations before and the overall trend has remained positive’.

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