Stroke risk rises with cold weather

Cold weather leads to a heightened risk of the most lethal form of stroke, intracerebral haemorrhage (ICH), a study by The George Institute for Global Health has shown.

The researchers studied 1997 ICH patients across the world between 2008 and 2012 and found almost 80 per cent of strokes occurred below 20°C. They also discovered ICH was more likely to occur in the first two to three hours of exposure to cold temperatures.

The findings published in PLOS One are the result of a world first study that links hourly temperatures and ICH.

Previous studies had hypothesised that cold temperature may trigger ICH through the narrowing of blood vessels and elevations in blood pressure. The George Institute research provides evidence that heightened blood pressure is the underlying mechanism for cold induced ICH.

Principal Investigator of the INTERACT2 study, Professor Craig Anderson, said: "Intracerebral haemorrhage is a serious disease, particularly in countries in the Northern Hemisphere where the population experiences cold and severe winters. Cold temperature increases the risk of stroke in populations with high blood pressure levels that are poorly controlled by treatment and lifestyle factors."

Other key findings:

  • When compared to rates of ICH at 20°C, (considered the optimal temperature) the odds of experiencing ICH rose to 137 per cent when temperatures dropped to 10°C. 
  • At zero the odds rose to 192 per cent, at minus 10°C the odds climbed 313 per cent, and at minus 20°C the odds of having an ICH when compared to the reference temperature (20°C) were 576 per cent higher.

Patient records were studied at 144 hospitals in 21 countries including the UK, Australia, South America, India, Pakistan, the US and China.  

Approximately seventy per cent had a known history of suffering high blood pressure.

Chief author of the study, Danni Zheng from The George Institute, said: “ICH is a devastating disease with high mortality and morbidity rates. In 2010 alone there were there were 5.3 million new cases of ICH and over 3 million deaths from ICH worldwide.

“Hopefully our research will contribute to ICH prevention by showing the potential need and opportunities for public health interventions such as the instalment of central heating in cold regions, public awareness promotions as well as targeted advice and warning for at risk individuals.”

Patient data was gathered from a previous George Institute trial called INTERACT2 which revealed a new way to treat ICH.  The landmark results showed that intensive blood pressure lowering (<140 mm Hg) in patients with intracerebral haemorrhage reduced the risk of major disability and improved chances of recovery by as much as 20 per cent. 

Stroke facts and figures

  • One in six Australians will have a stroke.  (National Stroke Foundation - Australia)
  • ICH accounts for about 15% of all strokes in Australia.
  • Around 17 million people suffer stroke each year around the world. (WHO)
  • The most lethal of all stroke subtypes is intracerebral haemorrhage.
  • Up to 40 per cent of patients will die within 30 days from ICH. (2014 UNSW study)

Read the journal article 'Low Ambient Temperature and Intracerebral Hemorrhage: The INTERACT2 Study' in PLOS One.