Health: Get warm fur winter and don't be a dumb animal

Health Check
IT WAS one of the most celebrated images of the Eighties - a supermodel dragging a fur coat across the floor leaving a trail of blood. Underneath, the slogan: "It takes 40 dumb animals to make a coat but only one to wear it."

For the anti-fur pressure group, Lynx, aided by the photographer David Bailey, the campaign was a spectacular success. Posters appeared on billboards across the country, triggering shock, outrage and a sudden influx of mink coats into cold storage. But while it saved the members of one dumb species, it now looks as if it may have cost the lives of another.

In Britain, about 40,000 more people die in the winter than in the summer every year. The reasons for this excess winter mortality are ill understood, but evidence is pointing to inadequate clothing when people step outside. A fur coat, in other words, could be a life saver.

To see the force of this, you only have to examine the findings of a remarkable study, conducted in the bleakest depths of Siberia, published in the British Medical Journal. In Yakutsk, the world's coldest city, temperatures fall routinely to minus 40 degrees centigrade - cold enough to cause frostbite in a matter of minutes. Yet there is no increase in winter death rates. Contrast this with Britain where deaths start to rise as soon as the temperature falls below 18 degrees (that is, below plus 18 degrees).

Why should this be? The best current hypothesis is that sudden exposure to cold, as when someone steps from a centrally heated house or office into the winter air, causes a reaction which thickens the blood, reducing circulation to the periphery of the body where heat is most readily lost. However, thicker blood increases the risk of blockages, and blood clots in arteries constricted by fatty deposits, increasing the risk of strokes and heart attacks.

The message is, therefore, wear warm clothes. In Yakutsk this means fur. As the temperature dropped almost everyone who ventured outside wore an overcoat, hat and gloves, made of fur or other thick material, and covered the ears and the side of the face. The proportion of people who shivered while outdoors did not rise significantly until the temperature fell below minus 20 degrees centigrade - but then, fewer ventured out.

What can we learn from the Siberians? It would be a nonsense to suggest fur coats be made available on prescription to those with dodgy hearts.

Anyone who can afford a mink is unlikely to be at serious risk of hypothermia, but a second (or 10th) hand ordinary fur could make a welcome Christmas present for granny - or grandad, for that matter.

The main message, however, is, whatever you wear, wrap up well. In Yakutsk, residents wore an average of 4.26 layers of clothing, including a fur.

Professor William Keatinge of Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, and chief author of the Yakutsk study, said: "Even moderately cold weather, experienced for a relatively short time, can cause strokes or heart attacks in otherwise healthy individuals in the middle to older age groups. Many of these deaths are preventable with adequate outdoor clothing, especially combined with warmer homes and keeping moving while outside. Waiting for a bus in a British winter could be life threatening. It may look sunny outside, but people can get extremely cold."

Here, then, is another solution to the British problem of excess winter mortality. Get the buses to run on time - and spare the dumb furry animals.