Hurricanes and tornadoes are widely publicized, leaving little room for heat-related catastrophes — weather’s top killer. Scientists have estimated that around 12,000 people die each year from some heat-induced event. And what’s staggering, over 80% of heat victims are the elderly, primarily of ages 60 and older. These statistics come from a recent research debrief showing the linkage between temperature increase and the deaths of senior citizens.
Of course, many factors contribute to the elderly’s disproportionate amount of heat-related deaths. One of the leading causes, however, is due to the aging body’s inability to regulate heat. And as a person is unable to maintain their internal body temperature, it weakens their cardiovascular systems and decreases blood circulation—which aids in one’s ability to sweat.
As the global climate only continues to rise, we need to pay more attention—especially now on the elderly that could be at risk.
How climate change affects senior citizens
According to Dr. Jay Lemery, “a mildly dehydrated or overheated elder can become confused or unaware of their situation, behaving listlessly and failing to react to a growing threat of dangerous overheating.”
This has led many to keep an eye on older relatives during the summer months. And for many, it’s as simple as reminding them to drink cold water or kick on their air conditioning — which would significantly decrease heat-related risks.
Oftentimes, these reminders seem necessary since in the United States surveys found that about 44% of women over 75 live alone. Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University, studied the Chicago heat wave of 1995 that killed over 700 people. His findings showed the majority of victims to be seniors living alone.
Additionally, these deaths pertained to the elderly in impoverished communities, where the average household income couldn’t afford air conditioning. Thus, from this Chicago event, social isolation seems to be a big contributor to the growing death rates of the elderly during extreme temperatures.
Air conditioning difficult to obtain for lower-income households
Nighttime temperatures are also rising, so soon the dark won’t even provide sufficient cooling. To make matters worse, air conditioning costs are also increasing in price— making the systems difficult to obtain for lower-income households. While most of us are ordered to stay at home due to Covid-19, both the elderly and young alike are finding it harder to cool down in the summer heat.
Covid-19 creates a challenge on escaping the heat for senior citizens
Most cities have set measures to prevent future heat waves from impacting citizens. For example, cities use heat emergency systems that implement health surveillance, public alerts, cooling centers, and many places to help seniors at risk. In fact, after the 1995 Chicago heatwave, the city put in place various systems to reduce their emergency response rates.
Yet Covid-19 has made all of these feats much harder. Many common air-conditioned sites such as malls and libraries are closed due to social distancing restraints. Not to mention, first responders are backed up, prioritizing Covid-19 events. Furthermore, many elderly don’t want to leave homes since they are the most at risk of the virus; which makes this situation all the more complicated.
Actions taken so far
Many cities have recently record-breaking heat temperatures. With Covid-19, communities will have to adapt and begin testing new ideas. For example, in Phoenix, officials are renting hotel rooms for the homeless and elderly. Additionally, New York City is paying electrical bills for residents. The EPA also published a rulebook to guide vulnerable groups to combat the heat.
Hopefully, with new adaptions, the elderly will be more prepared to combat these upcoming summers of intense heat.
Jalen Xing is a Writer at theRising and the co-founder of Students For Hospitals. You can pitch him stories at jalen.xing [at] gmail [dot] com.