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Seasonal Cold, Thermal Behaviour and Temperature Distributions in the Homes of Older People

School of Health and Social Care
University of Teesside
Date: 2005


There is a significant gap in knowledge of the winter activities of older people, both inside and outside the home. This is despite the fact that previous research has recognised that many older people continue to live in fuel poverty and that excess winter deaths disproportionately affect this section of the population. Understanding the types and levels of activity and their relationships to warmth, heating systems and temperature (both inside and outside) has considerable importance not only for energy research and the energy sector, but also for health and social care.

Key research Question

The study aimed to assess the relationship (if any) between levels of activity among older people and the environmental temperatures (internal and external) in the winter period. There was conflicting prior evidence as to whether low internal temperatures increased or decreased the likelihood of such activity.

Summary of activity

Thirty-two participants were recruited and assigned to two groups. The first, the ‘Cold’ group, resided in properties without central heating. The second, the ‘Warm’ group, had unrestricted access to central heating but were divided into three subcategories (‘Warm’, ‘True Warm’ and ‘False Warm’) to take account of their different payment methods.

The levels of activity of all participants were recorded by means of monitoring devices worn on the skin. At the same time, indoor room temperatures were monitored, and meteorological data were collected (minimum, maximum and average [mean] temperatures) from a nearby monitoring station. Data were collected for three months between January and March 2003. Statistical analysis of the technical data was conducted using a number of different methods (regression, time series and variance). In addition, data were also collected in the form of participant diaries. These used a simple daily activity sheet that asked participating householders to record how much time they spent in each room of their house and what level of clothing was worn.


The analysis of the data supported the results of earlier studies that demonstrated that as the temperature fell activity levels rose among older people. Household temperatures in the ‘Cold’ group were notably lower than those in the ‘Warm’ group, but lower core body temperatures among participants were not proven. However, the authors infer that this is likely to have been the case among the ‘Cold’ and ‘False Warm’ groups, placing them at higher risk of certain ‘cold stress’-related health conditions such as raised blood pressure and cardiac strain. Members of both the ‘Cold’ group and the ‘False Warm’ group spent much more time outside the home than those in the ‘Warm’ group, although this is not necessarily problematic if the individual is properly clothed.

Certain categories of older people were at higher risk of this. Those without central heating who paid by use and those with central heating who were billed for heating by use but stated that their use was not restricted were more likely to engage in ‘high-risk’ behaviour – frequent outdoor excursions in cold weather without adequate clothing and low levels of activity while outdoors – and also faced low indoor temperatures.

Temperatures in the properties whose residents paid for their heating at a flat rate were on average 1.6 °C higher than those where residents paid by use. The system of heating charges was a significant factor in whether households were able to maintain adequate warmth during the period of study.


  • A ‘high risk’ categorisation should be applied to those older people whose behaviour profile makes them more vulnerable to cold stress, in order to prioritise where energy efficiency and health interventions should be directed.
  • More effort is needed to improve uptake of the relevant benefits available to older people while at the same time putting more resources into programmes such as Warm Front (or targeting them more effectively at this group). Any programme that is able to deliver more effective heating, insulation and energy efficiency will reduce the risks outlined in this study.
  • Further research is needed on several topics. These include more inquiry into the relationship between the way home heating is charged for and activity levels, qualitative research to capture older people’s own explanations of their energy use and behaviour, and investigation into health promotion models that can effectively address the types of high-risk behaviour that increase the probability of cold stress.

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