Magazine article Aging Today

Unrelenting Climate Change Means Our Elders Are in Peril

Magazine article Aging Today

Unrelenting Climate Change Means Our Elders Are in Peril

Article excerpt

In the United States, heat waves kill more people during a typical year than all other natural disasters combined. In his book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (Illinois) Eric Klinenberg (Chicago, 111.: University of Chicago Press; 2003) wrote about the 1995 heat wave that led to almost 750 heat-related deaths over a five-day period.

The majority of these deaths were older people, many living alone and unable to afford air conditioning. Some did not open windows for fear of crime and became overheated as fans circulated oppressively hot air. Reports show that the number of fatalities resulted from inadequate social support systems and emergency preparedness plans, including insufficient notice of extreme heat and location of neighborhood cooling centers, combined with overwhelmed healthcare facilities.

Climate Change Impacts All-Especially Elders

Advanced age represents one of the most significant risk factors for heat-related deaths in the United States. Older adults have less ability to regulate body temperature, and people with chronic medical conditions are less likely to sense and respond to changes in temperature. Also, many are on medications that can intensify the effects of extreme heat, according to Tanya Tillett in a 2013 Environmental Health Perspectives article (http://

Adults older than 65 are more vulnerable to the health effects from climate change for more complex reasons too, including a combination of physiological, psychological, geographic and socioeconomic factors, plus increased social isolation, according to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (http//

Many medications can intensify the effects of extreme heat.

The impact of climate change on the health of older adults depends on how these characteristics intersect. Urban exposures, like heat waves, for older adults living in isolation without air conditioning can result in catastrophic effects, as shown in a 2008 article by Gamble et al. for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (

Climate Change Is Escalating

Evidence indicates the pace of climate change is also increasing, bringing with it extreme weather events that can negatively impact not only respiratory and cardiovascular health, but also stimulate vector-borne disease, according to Blunden and Arndt in an article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (94[8]: S1-S238; 2013). Although climate changes have been recorded in all regions of the country, climate-related health risks vary by region.

In addition to heat waves, extreme weather events include record snowfall or precipitation, drought, tropical storms, tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires. The Natural Resources Defense Council (http// has designed an interactive map indicating trends in extreme weather events in the United States. In recent years, several states with a high percentage of older adult residents have been hit by forceful storms resulting in significant injuries and lives lost.

On June 25,2013, sweating in the hot summer sun, President Obama presented his plan to slow climate change to an audience at Georgetown University, reflecting that, "The 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years. …

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