The passing of PM Narendra Modi’s mother, Hiraba Modi, on Thursday is an instance of a phenomenon Indians have long held to be true: that the cold of winter exerts a pull on the souls of the elderly.
The world over, statistics show that more people die in winter than summer. A recent article by Dr Alex Berezow in the journal of American Council of Science and Health says that cold temperature is inherently deadly because it suppresses our immune systems, making us prone to catching viruses such as the one that causes the flu. In the year 2017, the USA recorded an average of 7,078 deaths per day. But the average was over 8,300 deaths per day in the months of December, January and February.
No wonder then that poets have tended to equate the spring and summer with the fullness of life, autumn with decay and winter with death. Most parts of India do not have extremely cold weather, but the relative difference between November and December temperatures is significant enough to wreak havoc on the health of the elderly. At the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital, Dr Lovelesh Nigam explains the phenomenon in terms of hyper-viscosity of the blood. “Low temperatures tend to increase blood viscosity, which can cause cardiac arrest or stroke. When the ambient temperature falls from 33 degrees to 22 degrees, as it does in December, blood viscosity increases by 26%, which results in a 20% decrease in the flow of blood. To compensate, blood pressure needs to increase by an equal amount, which doesn’t happen in all elderly patients,” he says.
Cold weather does tend to stress the human body. It requires more energy to maintain our body temperature at normal levels in winter, straining both the respiratory and circulatory systems. For those suffering from chronic problems of the heart or lungs, this can prove deadly. “In my experience, elderly people are more prone to falling ill in winter. Those with breathing problems are especially vulnerable, since cold weather exacerbates their condition,” says cardiologist Tapan Shah of Sangini Hospital, Ahmedabad.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and Asthma are two of the more common respiratory problems afflicting the elderly and both tend to increase in winter. Dr Kalpesh Talati of Zydus Hospital, Ahmedabad, doesn’t have any mortality statistics for his own hospital, but says: “It is the overall experience of the medical community that there is a higher number of ICU admissions of elderly patients during winter. We also find more cases of elderly patients falling and injuring themselves because of joint stiffness that comes with winter.”