Thousands of people have died as 21 countries across Europe endured unusually high temperatures amid an unprecedented and prolonged yet predictable heatwave last month. Older people and those with underlying medical conditions, such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, were particularly affected. Data from Spain and Portugal show most people who died were over age 65.
Earlier data also shows the disproportionate impact of heatwaves on older people. In 2021, 90 percent of heat-related deaths in the United Kingdom were among people 65 and older. Similarly, when France had its deadliest heatwave in 2003, most of the 15,000 people who died were older people.
No data has been published yet on how many people who have died from the current heatwave had a disability. But we know that heat is more likely to affect people with disabilities or pre-existing conditions that limit the body’s ability to stay cool, including diabetes, spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries, and cerebral palsy. People with psychosocial disabilities (mental health conditions) have triple the risk of death from heat, in part because some medications interfere with the body’s ability to regulate its temperature.
A recent scientific study calls Europe a “heatwave hotspot,” finding that the number of heatwaves there has increased faster than other regions in the ostensible “temperate zone.” Temperatures are expected to continue rising, and heatwaves will be more common, with human-caused climate change being the main driver. July’s heatwave saw temperatures reach upwards of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
Despite being among the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gas emissions driving the climate crisis, European governments have largely failed to help at-risk populations deal with the impacts of global warming. While some countries such as Belgium and France have heat action plans that target at-risk populations like older people and people with disabilities, most European countries have inadequate plans for addressing increasing temperatures that lead to thousands of preventable deaths each year.
Governments need better plans to protect older people and people with disabilities from increasingly common extreme heat. Officials should consult these communities to ensure those best placed to plan and lead responses can help prevent further deaths.