Takeaways About Heat Deaths and Vulnerable Older People

Climate change is making heat waves come earlier, get stronger, and last longer. This makes it more likely for older people, who are already more likely to get sick or die in hot weather, to get sick or die.

Most of the people who died in their homes last summer in the hottest big city in the U.S. were over 65, and almost none of them had air conditioning. People all over the country are learning about the risks of heat that are well-known in the Phoenix area.

Some lessons:

Why Do Older People Die From the Heat More Often?

Diabetes, heart disease, and kidney problems are more common in people 60 and older than in younger people. High temperatures can make these situations worse because as the heat index goes up, it gets harder for the body to cool down.

Some medicines that older people take to treat long-term conditions, like drugs for high blood pressure, can also make them more sensitive to heat.

Some older people have trouble moving around, which can make it hard for them to get help when they need it during a heat wave. They also tend to live alone and have fewer friends, which means that other people may not know they are in trouble and may not be able to help them in time.

How Does the Change in Climate Fit Into This?

Heat waves are getting stronger and staying longer in places that used to have milder weather. One study shows that dangerous heat will hit many parts of the world at least three times harder in the coming years as climate change gets worse.

In the past few years, another study found that more than a third of all heat-related deaths in the U.S. can be linked to global warming caused by people. It found that climate change is causing more than 1,100 deaths a year from heat in U.S. cities where many people don’t have air conditioning or aren’t used to hot weather.

What Are Notable Examples of Heat-associated Deaths?

In the United States, the most dramatic and dangerous event caused by heat happened in Chicago in 1995. Over 700 people, mostly older Black people, died alone in homes that had been turned into ovens that summer.

Also in Chicago, three African American women in their 60s and 70s died in the spring of 2022 when the centrally controlled heating in their apartment complex stayed on and the air conditioning was off, even though it was 90 degrees (32 C) out of season in mid-May.

During the summer of 2021, when a sudden heat wave hit the U.S. Pacific Northwest, an unknown number of older people died. Canada said that coroners found that more than 600 people in nearby British Columbia died from the heat.

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How Can the Heat Be Less Dangerous for Older People?

Phoenix and many other U.S. towns have had plans for a long time to keep people safe during heat waves, like opening cooling centers and giving out bottles of water.

When temperatures rise, health clinics, utilities, and local governments are coming up with new ways to keep older people safe.

Clinics are trying to make it easier for people who live alone and are at risk to talk to each other so they can better deal with the extreme heat. Local governments and non-profit groups also try to help low-income people whose air units don’t work by fixing them for free or giving them new ones.

In some places, people with low incomes can also get help from private or public sources to pay their energy bills and keep their air conditioning running. After older people died from extreme heat in the metro Phoenix and Chicago areas, regulations and laws were suggested to help keep the air conditioning on.

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