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Homeless people are 16 times more likely to die suddenly, eye-opening study finds

A US study revealed people who are experiencing homelessness are at a much greater risk of dying due to heart attacks than the rest of the population

homelessness can lead to a greater risk of heart attacks

Homelessness carries a great health risk. Now academics have found out just how much more likely people without a stable home are to have a heart attack. Image: Brett Sayles / Pexels

It’s well-known that homelessness is bad for health, but a new US study has revealed people who are without a stable home are 16 times more likely to die suddenly from a heart attack than the general population.

Academics from the University of San Francisco (UCSF) found the rate of sudden cardiac death was seven times higher among the homeless population when compared to the rest of society.

The study focused on people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco County – one of the US’s homelessness hotspots.

The findings showed the need for defibrillators and other public policy measures to improve health of people living on the streets and prevent premature deaths.

“Homeless individuals die young, at a mean age of 50 years,” said one of the study’s authors, a cardiologist and UCSF professor of medicine Zian H Tseng.

“These findings offer several novel insights into the profound impact of homelessness on sudden death and its underlying causes.”

Researchers studied the autopsies of 868 people in the county who had sudden deaths and found 151 people were homeless. 

They found the people who had experienced homelessness were more likely to be male and generally younger at the age of 56 years of age compared to 61 for the general population.

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There was also a higher prevalence of alcohol and substance use and mental health issues among the homeless population.

Researchers found that homeless individuals died most often from noncardiac causes, including drug overdoses, gastrointestinal disorders and infections, while people who died more frequently from arrhythmic causes.

“While the high rate of substance use in the homeless population has long been recognised, our study demonstrates its association with early, sudden mortality and its true impact among homeless people,” said UCSF cardiology fellow and author Leila Haghighat.

“By contrast, housed individuals more closely reflected the classic profile of sudden death that modern medical systems aim to resuscitate and prevent.”

The study showed the need for public defibrillators as well as the need to “redouble efforts” to treat substance abuse and provide targeted immunisation to vulnerable people, Haghighat added.

Homeless deaths have been given greater attention in the UK following the Dying Homeless project, which saw the Bureau of Investigative Journalism start counting homeless deaths in 2017.

The project is still running and is now helmed by the Museum of Homelessness. The most recent UK-wide statistics were released in April and revealed 1,313 people died while rough sleeping or in emergency or insecure housing in 2022.

There are now official counts for England, Wales and Scotland too. These counts use a different methodology to the Dying Homeless project – analysing death certificates and using modelling rather than freedom of information requests to local authorities.

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The most recent Office for National Statistics count found an estimated 741 deaths of people experiencing homelessness were registered in 2021 across England and Wales.

Most people who died were male, like in the US study, but the ONS found people in the UK died at a younger age when experiencing homelessness. On average, men died at the age of 45 while women died at just 43 years old.

As for Scotland, the National Records of Scotland estimated 250 people died while homeless in 2021 with similar demographics to the rest of the UK.

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