Winter deaths in Scotland reached their worst level in almost 20 years with 23,137 fatalities last season, it was confirmed today.
This compares with 20,946 in the previous winter (2016/17). It was the largest number since the 23,379 deaths were registered in winter 1999/2000, according to figures from National Records of Scotland (NRS).
Virulent strains of winter flu have been blamed for a rise in deaths. Last winter the number of flu-linked deaths trebled to 331, although today's figures say the virus was only "directly" responsible for a small proportion of fatalities.
Read more: Flu deaths treble as Scots endure winter blast
Anne Slater, Chief Executive of NRS, said the long-term trend of winter deaths in Scotland since the early 1950s has clearly been" downward."
But she added: "The average value for the latest five years, which smoothes out much of the year-to-year fluctuation, is now above the level that had applied since the early 2000s.
"It is too soon to say whether there has been a change in the long-term trend: it could just be a short-term rise, like that seen roughly 20 years ago, after which the average fell for several years.”
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The underlying causes of most of the ‘additional’ deaths include respiratory system diseases, such as pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as well as circulatory system diseases which include coronary heart disease and stroke. Dementia, and Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases are also factors.
The Scottish Government today stepped up calls for older Scots to get a free flu vaccination ahead of the coming winter.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Catherine Calderwood said: “Every year in Scotland, around two thirds of people who get severe flu and need intensive care treatment have a health condition such as chronic lung or heart disease. Last winter, Scotland had its highest flu rates for seven years, a pattern seen across Europe and the United States, and it is likely that flu was a significant factor in many deaths, particularly among older people and those with long-term conditions.
“Flu vaccines are available free to all eligible adults, including everybody aged 65 and older, and protects against a number of different flu strains. Vaccination remains our best defence against flu, and I urge people to take up the offer of a free vaccine.”