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US Heat Deaths Among Older People Rising

Excessive Heat Also Harms Mental Health, Pregnancy, and Birth Outcomes

Patrons get on an express bus set up by the city Phoenix, Arizona, to take people to a heat relief station inside the Phoenix Convention Center, May 29, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

In the past two decades, heat-related deaths for older persons in the US almost doubled, reaching a record high of 19,000 deaths in 2018, according to estimates issued today by a commission, formed by the medical journal Lancet, that tracks the impact of climate change on health.

Older people are just one group vulnerable to hotter environments because of climate change. Excessive heat disproportionately harms those who are already marginalized. Research has found that it can negatively impact mental health, pregnancy, and birth outcomes. Those who work long hours in the heat, such as agricultural workers, are at increased risk of kidney damage from heat exposure. Already, people of color, old and young, face higher rates of poor health in the US. They also tend to live in hotter parts of cities, do hotter work, and have less cash to cool their homes.

At rest, some 200-500 ml of blood per minute circulates to the average person’s skin. But under high strain, this amount increases to as much as a massive 7 or 8 liters per minute. According to occupational health expert Dr. Ronda McCarthy, for people to cool down they need a healthy cardiovascular system and internal organs that can manage without the redistributed blood. Her work helps illustrate why some people, including older people and those with heart, respiratory, and other chronic health conditions, are more likely to get sick or die in high temperatures. Though even for people without such conditions, the strain of working long hours in the blazing sun can be deadly.

The 2020 report, called the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change, recommends that governments phase out fossil fuels and end climate-harming agricultural practices, which could also help address the negative health impacts of air pollution and environmental degradation. The report also calls on US healthcare authorities to make changes so that all people, no matter their race, have equal access to healthcare. This will be essential to protecting everyone during the hotter years to come.

Cities, states, tribes, and the federal government need to communicate the dangers of heat to the public, particularly older people and other at-risk populations. They also need to cool cities down. Recognizing that historical injustices make people of color more vulnerable to the health-poverty trap needs to be at the center of how the US responds to heat.

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