Increasing numbers of Victorian pensioners anxious about turning on the heating are being treated for hypothermia in a "concerning" trend that has alarmed authorities.
The sad finding was contained in a study of 217 hypothermic emergency presentations between July 7, 2009 and September 1, 2016 to Alfred Health prompted by a record-breaking cold winter in 2015.
It found older people who suffered hypothermic episodes - when the body temperature drops to dangerous levels - at home were more likely to die than younger people with similar symptoms found outside.
More more than half of the patients who presented to a hospital with hypothermia lived alone and had few social supports, while almost three quarters were on a pension.
"The finding that 87 per cent of our hypothermic elderly patients were found indoors is concerning," author Dr Michelle Amanda-Rajah said in the study, published in the Internal Medicine Journal.
The risk of poor outcomes was heightened by social economic factors, with 59 per cent of elderly patients living alone or having few social supports and 71 per cent on a pension, the study found.
Dr Amanda-Rajah questioned whether economic deprivation, such as being able to afford heating, or behavioural factors, such as wearing enough clothing or even thermally inefficient housing was to blame.
"With rising energy costs a contentious issue in Australia, further population-based studies are warranted," she said.
Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said the findings were concerning.
"It's very concerning that there are some members of our community who are obviously anxious about turning on their heating," Ms Mikakos said on Monday.
"Our government is certainly conscious of the pressures around energy costs."
It's the first study of its kind to examine the issue in Victoria, Australia's second coldest state behind Tasmania.
Public health campaigns in Australia have traditionally focused on the effects of extreme heat, but recent multi-country research suggests illness and mortality associated with hypothermia was "significant and underappreciated".
More than 70 per cent of patients with hypothermia presented to a hospital in the colder months, but 12 per cent were treated during summer.
The study of 217 patients from Alfred Health, comprising three metropolitan hospitals including The Alfred, Sandringham and Caulfield Hospitals, followed the winter of 2015, Victoria's coldest in 26 years.
Australian Associated Press