Neighborhood Heat Watch

Credit: Leo Hidalgo/Creative Commons

I’ve been writing over the last few weeks about the authoritative Climate and Health Assessment released in April by more than 100 climate science and health experts. The last chapter, in particular, caught my eye because it focuses on people who are especially vulnerable to climate change, including communities of color, people with disabilities, and older adults.

We’ve already been warned that this summer could be a scorcher across much of the United States, meaning local and state health officials will call on us to keep an eye on our elderly neighbors.

There’s a good reason for those calls to action: Extreme heat is our nation’s biggest weather-related killer, on average, and older adults are particularly vulnerable when the mercury soars. More than 7,400 people died from heat-related causes between 1999 and 2010, with a dramatic climb in death rates for people aged 65 and up. You don’t have to look hard to find news coverage from Las Vegas to the Bronx of elderly Americans dying alone during heat waves.

Credit: Data: Jeffrey Berko, et al., National Health Statistics Report 76 (July 2014)

Unfortunately, the combination of more extreme heat due to climate change, an aging population, and increasing rates of chronic illnesses among older adults will likely make this situation far worse.

According to the report, the number of adults aged 65 and up will nearly double from 48 million to 88 million through 2050. At the same time, chronic conditions like diabetes and mental illness will likely continue to rise among older Americans, in part because of longer life expectancy. Older adults have a harder time physically adjusting to heat than younger individuals, especially if they’re taking medications that interfere with their bodies’ natural cooling mechanisms. Then there’s the fact that many older adults have physical or mental limitations that make self-care during a heat wave difficult—like dementia, which affects nearly 40 percent of people aged 90 and over.

Heat-related deaths can be prevented with a little advance preparation and neighborly care. That means checking up on each other during the heat waves over the next few months. It also means taking swift action to cut carbon pollution, which threatens to make Boston’s summers feel like Miami’s, and D.C.’s summers feel more like those in south Texas.

For more information, including what federal agencies are doing to help keep us safe from the heat, check out this blog post from the White House about Extreme Heat Week. 

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