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How Climate Change Affects Seniors

It’s little surprise that California and Florida are home to more seniors than any other states. The sunshine and warmer climate are inviting to older Americans who are often burdened with health issues. Dry, temperate climates make it easier for seniors to manage their health by staying physically active, attending doctors’ appointments, or simply connecting with others socially. But a recent trend may complicate matters. Climate change creates increased heat levels and extreme weather events that can pose health risks to many Americans. Seniors are especially at risk. The CDC reports roughly 618 people are killed in the U.S. each year by extreme heat. Outdoor workers, infants and children are particularly at risk. So too are seniors who often live with overlapping vulnerabilities to heat. According to the CDC:  

  • Seniors are not able to adjust to sudden changes in temperature as well as younger people.
  • Seniors are more likely to have a chronic illness that would impact the body’s normal response to heat.
  • Seniors are more likely to take prescription medications that might affect the body’s ability to regulate its temperature or sweat.

These factors are particularly relevant given, four out of five adults aged 50 and older live with at least one chronic illness like diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, or heart disease. For the 12 million seniors living alone, managing illnesses that are exacerbated by heat can become even more challenging. Seniors in the U.S. should pay close attention to international trends. Nearly 15,000 people died, most of them elderly, during a 2003 heatwave in France. A report by the U.K.’s Royal Society focusing on climate change impact on older adults indicated this type of event maybe more commonplace as the global population ages and the climate continues to change.  

Global Warming: What Cold Weather Patterns Mean for Seniors

Seniors should be equally concerned about the cold. Remember, warmer global temperatures can contribute to extreme weather — both hot and cold. For example, warmer temperatures in 2006 prevented Lake Erie from freezing for the first time in its history. Since more water from the lake was available for evaporation and precipitation, this led to more snowfall than the region typically sees. By some measures, extreme cold weather patterns can pose a greater danger than the heat. A 2014 report by the National Center for Health Statistics shows that 63 percent of weather-related deaths were attributed to hypothermia or exposure to natural cold, while only 31 percent were attributed to heat-related factors. The report showed a high number of the cold-related deaths came from the rural West, and most of the heat-related deaths came from the warmer South and West. It also confirmed older people had a higher rate of weather-related deaths than other age groups.  

Tips for Seniors in the Face of Climate Change

But not all the news is grim. Seniors can take steps to manage their health, even in the face of climate change. Experts suggest staying indoors during extreme heat and cold events, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding alcohol and caffeine. Seniors can also explore services and agencies that may help fulfill immediate health care needs.  More importantly, seniors can leverage their collective lobbying power to address the underlying issues that cause climate change. According to Dr. Sabrina McCormick, professor for the Master of Public Health program at The George Washington University, individuals can practice “engaging with your leaders, telling them what your concerns are, and asking them to take action themselves on a policy level.” The Baby Boomer generation wields significant clout — making up 36 percent of the electorate. They’ve already participated in social-political campaigns from the Vietnam War to the civil rights movement. Perhaps seniors can organize once again to address climate change and its impact on their health.

About the Author: Julie Potyraj is the blog editor for MHA@GW, MPH@GW, and HealthInformatics@GW, all offered by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. For several years, she served as a community development specialist in Zambia coordinating youth empowerment programs and reproductive health education. She is currently an MPH@GW student focusing on global health and health communications.