Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Weather and Health

It has long been recognised that the weather can affect our general mood and feelings of well-being. Cabin fever is a well-known psychological condition arising from an extended period of inclement weather that forces people to remain indoors. Symptoms include irritability, forgetfulness, excessive sleeping, and in extreme cases, paranoia.

Prolonged spells of hot weather are often associated with a spike in human mortality, particularly for the very young, the very old or the ill, and it is believed that so called heat waves are responsible for more human deaths than the more spectacular weather events such as hurricanes, tornados and gales. 

Washington citizens cool off in a fountain during the heat wave of 2010.
Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge

Increases in domestic violence also appear to cluster during hot spells, with irritability rising during these times. Increased consumption of alcohol may also be a factor here.

But it is also suspected that weather can influence our general health in a variety of other ways and this has proven a fascinating area of research since the mid nineteenth century.

An academic study was undertaken soon after the American Civil War by the eminent Philadelphian physician Dr. S. W. Mitchell who was interested in the effect of weather on war wounds and limb amputations. He observed that falling barometric pressure, together with rising temperature and humidity, frequently produced neuralgic pains in amputees.

Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, c 1875
Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge

This observation was reinforced some 70 years later in an experiment performed by a German meteorologist Otto Hoflich. He correlated the pains experienced by a World War II soldier, Claus Thurkow, with the prevailing weather situation. Thurkow had lost his right arm during the War, and under instructions from Hoflich, kept a detailed diary on the dates and times when he experienced pain in the stump of his arm. The results were similar to Mitchell's conclusions regarding Civil War veterans.

It is believed that other conditions producing pain in the various joints of the human body, such as arthritis and gout, may also be weather sensitive, perhaps responding to changes in barometric pressure, temperature and humidity levels.

An acute case of rheumatoid arthritis
Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge

Perhaps the most surprising weather correlations that have been observed concern the beginning and cessation of life itself. Statistical correlations between the weather and coronary thrombosis (heart attack) have been demonstrated, usually involving conditions experienced with the approach of a cold front. Obviously weather is not the primary cause but perhaps the falling barometric pressure associated with an approaching cold front can trigger the onset of an attack in a person whose heart is critically poised because of disease.

Paradoxically, similar weather conditions appear to also precipitate the beginning of life with a statistically relevant correlation appearing between falling barometric pressure and the onset of spontaneous labour in childbirth. 

The onset of spontaneous labour in childbirth could be triggered by weather conditions.
Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge

Although the actual mechanisms involved in these situations are not understood, the statistics point to connections that demonstrate weather affects us in a whole variety of indirect ways. 

Perhaps in addition to the usual information, weather forecasts of the future will contain neuralgia advices, arthritis alerts and gynaecological warnings. 

The Australian Weather Book, Edition 3, Keith Colls and Dick Whitaker, New Holland, 2012

Weather, Climate and You, H. E. Landsberg, Weatherwise, Vol 39, Issue 5, 1986

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