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The psychological costs of living in a house that is too cold


Living in a home that cannot be heated sufficiently is associated with various physical health problems, which manifests itself in particular by excess mortality in winter. For example, cold temperatures decrease the effectiveness of the immune system.

Housing that is too cold is also a risk for mental health, shows a study published in December 2022 in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

L’World Health Organization (WHO) defines a sufficiently warm home as 21°C in living areas and 18°C ​​in bedrooms.

Living in a suitably heated home is a basic and universal need, point out Amy Clair and Emma Baker of theUniversity of Adelaide (Australia) who conducted the new study.

Living in cold housing can affect mental health in several ways.

  • For many, heating costs are a source of stress and financial pressure. Financial pressure harms health, disrupts sleep, while reducing potential expenses for other essentials like food.

  • A few studies have explored the psychosocial benefits of housing, in particular the potential of housing to create feelings of control and autonomy, as well as the benefits of security and coherence. These benefits are undermined by housing problems, especially the cold. Studies looking at the effects of heat improvements in UK homes have shown that people felt ‘more at home’, less isolated, were able to increase the usable space in their homes and experienced improvements of their emotional security. (Three Basic Psychological Needs According to Self-Determination Theory)

  • People who are unable to heat their homes often adopt coping mechanisms that limit their social life, such as not inviting friends over and going to bed early to keep warm.

  • Many people are simply exhausted from the heaviness of an entire winter spent in uncomfortable cold.

In order to explore the link between a house that is too cold and mental health, the researchers analyzed data from the British cohort UK Household Longitudinal Study collected since 2009 from adults in around 40,000 households representing a representative sample of the UK population.

Mental distress and housing temperature were assessed at the start of the survey to account for the potentially bidirectional relationship.

The effects of cold housing

When houses became cold, the risk of severe mental distress increased. In people who previously had no mental health problems, the risk of severe mental distress doubled when they had cold housing, while in those who already had mental health symptoms (but not severe), this risk tripled. . These effects were seen even after controlling for many other factors associated with mental health, including income.

People most at risk

Single parents, the unemployed and people with chronic illnesses are much more likely to live in cold housing. Renters are also more likely than owners.

The elderly and those suffering from certain chronic diseases with poorer thermoregulation also have a greater risk of suffering from the cold.

For more information on living at home, see the links below.

Psychomedia with sources: The Conversation, Social Science & Medicine.
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