Climate Change and Older Adults
Climate change has had many impacts on our planet, such as rising sea levels, an increase of extreme weather events, and disruption to ecosystems, all of which are well documented. These hazards are of course not good for anyone, but for older adults, they can be especially dangerous as with old age comes an increase in vulnerability to intense and frequent climate related events.
Because of climate change, weather that was once considered extreme is now becoming the new normal, and we keep seeing steady streams of headlines about record breaking temperatures and a yearly slate of natural disasters. In fact, in the United States alone, 6500 daily heat records were broken in the summer of 2023 in cities and towns across the nation.
What compounds the issue is that urban areas, due to the fact that structures and roads and other man-made objects all absorb and re-emit heat from the sun more than natural landscapes, experience what is called the “heat island” effect. This means that cities will experience higher sustained temperatures than the surrounding rural areas.
With so many of these structures all over cities, and far fewer natural landscapes to absorb and dissipate heat, temperatures in cities are higher than their surrounding outlying areas. Research has shown that 41 million people in the United States live in heat islands where the temperatures are elevated by at least 8 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sadly, older adults are especially vulnerable to suffering negative health outcomes from higher temperatures. Of the 12,000 people who die yearly in the United States from heat related causes, over 80% are aged 60 or older. But what exactly is it that makes older adults more susceptible? The physiological changes that come about as a result of the aging process can make older adults experience more difficulty in body temperature regulation, cardiovascular functions, and maintaining balanced fluid levels, which are important for hydration. Health problems that older adults frequently suffer from like Type 2 diabetes, or certain medications, can make it more difficult for the body to manage heat. Cognitive impairment issues like Alzheimer’s disease can also prevent older adults from noticing that they’re overheating. And if they fail to notice, they’ll fail to take steps to cool off.
The environments in which we live play an important role in fighting or worsening heat exposure. For most people in the United States, we’re talking about the built environment, which is all the structures humans have built, such as houses, roads, transportation, and more. Cities were originally built without climate change in mind, and as such, many homes were designed to be airtight and highly insulated, to keep heat in during colder months. As you can imagine, with rising temperatures this poses an issue as heat stays trapped inside.