Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ending in ice

According to the prognosticators, an ocean storm is going to pull air straight from Yellowknife into New England tonight and the CO2 will condense, although we should be okay with the nitrogen. Okay, I exaggerate slightly, but it will be cold.

Naturally, this news stimulated the epidemiology center in my brain so I wondered how many people in the U.S. freeze to death each year. (Unfortunately, if you're interested in public health you have to think about unpleasant stuff.) It turns out it's generally around 600. As causes of death go, that's not a huge number, but you would think it would be highly avoidable, and it also has a disturbing quality.

I had assumed that most victims would be homeless, but the CDC report doesn't seem to back that up as the issue per se. Rather, the major issue is alcohol abuse. Many chronically homeless people are alcohol addicts, of course, but in general homeless people have figured out how to adapt to their situation. When it gets really cold, more people show up at shelters and, in Boston at least, they fit the people in, on the lobby floor if need be.

Where people get into trouble is if they are too impaired to recognize their peril. Alcohol intoxication makes you feel warm, even though it actually lowers the core body temperature. Dementia and general frailty are also risk factors.

I am not particularly surprised that the two states with the highest rate of death by hypothermia are Alaska and Montana, but I'm not sure why New Mexico is third. Maybe some of my friends from New Mexico can weigh in.

1 comment:

C. Corax said...

Same reason they die in other states. Deserts have wide temperature swings, and it can get pretty darned cold in NM at night.