Older people are at increased risk from deadly heat waves

If nothing is done to slow climate change, the record temperatures and deadly heatwaves it brings will only get worse, experts warn – Copyright AFP Frederic J. BROWN

Heat waves fueled by climate change are creating higher risks of illness and death for older people.

People ages 60 and over tend to have more chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease and kidney problems than younger people, according to CTV News Canada.

Additionally, many of the medications prescribed for older people to treat chronic conditions, such as diuretics for high blood pressure, can also make them more vulnerable to the heat.

From the Pacific Northwest, including Canada, to Chicago to North Carolina, health clinics, utilities and local governments are working to keep older people safe when temperatures soar.

They’re adopting rules for disconnecting electricity, mandating when to switch on communal air conditioning and improving communication with at-risk people living alone.

In the past year alone the world has been battered by increasingly intense heatwaves and crop-withering droughts
In the past year alone the world has been battered by increasingly intense heatwaves and crop-withering droughts – Copyright AFP Asaad NIAZI

One of the very hottest places in the United States has been Maricopa County’s Phoenix, Arizona. Located in the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix and its suburbs are ground zero for heat-associated deaths in the U.S. Such fatalities are so common that Arizona’s largest county keeps a weekly online tally during the six-month hot season from May through October.

“Phoenix really is the model for what we’ll be seeing in other places,” said researcher Jennifer Ailshire, a native of the desert city now at the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology where she studies how environmental factors affect health and aging. “The world is changing rapidly and I fear we are not acting fast enough to teach people how harmful rising temperatures can be.”

Isolated and vulnerable, the heat victims last year during Maricopa County’s deadliest summer on record included a couple in their 80s without known relatives, an 83-year-old woman with dementia living alone after her husband entered hospice care and a 62-year-old Rwandan refugee whose air conditioner broke down, according to the Associated Press.

An older man, image by Ahmet Demirel via Wikimedia / Public domain (CC0 1.0)

Extreme heat events and the elderly

Older people are more prone to having mobility issues – that is just the way it is. And added to the mix is that more of the elderly are living alone. And being more socially isolated, this means other people may not know they are in distress and provide the relief they need before it is too late.

An undetermined number of older people died during the summer of 2021 when an unexpected heat wave swept across the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Canada reported that coroners confirmed more than 600 people died from the heat in neighbouring British Columbia.

Many homes did not have air conditioning as temperatures surpassed 100 degrees, hitting all-time highs in Portland and Seattle. The tiny village of Lytton, British Columbia, saw temperatures reach 121 degrees.

This is why it is so very important to check on our elderly neighbors and loved ones, not just during a heat wave, but at other times as well.

Older people are at increased risk from deadly heat waves
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