A new report by Climate Central looks at how heat and a climate that is getting hotter is endangering the health of the aging US population. This threat is exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The new study showed that it’s not going to get any better. In fact, around 12,000 Americans die of heat-related causes each year, according to scientists at Duke University. This number is comparable to the annual deaths from gun homicides. This new study, done in April 2020, showed dramatically increased estimates of both current and future deaths. These numbers surpassed the 2018 National Climate Assessment’s 2100 projection by a factor of 10.
Researchers have found that more than 80% of those dying from heat-related illnesses are over 60, and the baby boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) will be the hardest hit by climate change.
One of the things included in the report are tips on checking on your elderly neighbors or relatives. The advice comes from a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Dr. Jay Lemery:
- Get to know your older neighbors before the weather gets hot.
- During hot weather, check-in by phone or video, or by socially distancing at the door.
- Ask detailed questions. Check for a bright mood and conversational ability.
- Ask about hydration and the temperature in the home.
- Urination reflects hydration. Yellow, smelly urine indicates dehydration.
- If you are unsure how the seniors normally are, get help from a friend or relative.
- If the senior seems confused, listless, or unresponsive, call 911.
Other Key Points From The Study
The Severity of Heatstroke On Seniors
While classic heatstroke, which occurs when your body temperature is above 103 degrees Fahrenheit, seniors can get into serious danger from the heat and dehydration stressing their bodies. This is due to the challenges caused by their age as well as chronic medical conditions or vulnerabilities caused by medications.
Physiological studies have shown that even healthy elders aren’t able to sense heat or even sweat and are less likely to feel thirst or drink fluids when dehydrated. Older bodies aren’t able to regulate internal heat as well as younger adults can and if they are not in good physical shape, these problems can be worsened.
Community planning and coordinating a response can help cities that are less adapted to heat, especially in low-income areas where seniors may not be able to afford air conditioning. In Philadelphia, the city developed a system that used the media to announce heat warnings and give tips for how to stay cool. There were even cooling systems opened and utility cut-offs were paused. A 2018 study found that this system saved around 45 lives annually.
How I Was Taught To Prevent Heat-Related Illnesses
I grew up really, really poor. My mother did the best she could, but there were times that we had to choose between having either electricity or water. And most of the time, my mother would choose water, so this meant we had no electricity for a good nine months out of the year. This included the summer — imagine triple digit temperatures, high humidity, and no air conditioning.
I’d spend my days in the library while my mother worked. We’d get the news alerts from friends who owned a TV and one thing that I always knew — thanks to the librarians and teachers around — was that we had a system similar to Philadelphia’s media setup. The newspaper would often remind people to drink water, tips to stay cool, and symptoms to look out for. Here, it gets so hot quickly and our summers usually end in October — meaning that’s when the temperatures cool from the high 80s (with 80% or higher humidity levels) into the 70s, which happens for most areas in September.
The heat is normal here, but in places that normally have summer temperatures in the 80s with no or very little humidity, the populations there don’t really know how to handle extreme heat. The phrase “Drink water” was often stated throughout my childhood and teenage years, especially in the summer.
Prevention is the very first thing that was taught. Drink twice the amount of water that you normally do. If you drink 8 glasses, then increase that to 16, especially if you are going to be out in the heat for any amount of time.
During school days, I would always carry a bottle of water and refill it before I took the bus home. I didn’t take the school bus but the city bus and sometimes, if you missed the bus, you’d have to wait an hour for the next one.
If you’re going to be outside, plan for the heat. Have 2-3 frozen bottles of water in a bag. If you have to be outside waiting for a bus, you’ll have a cool and refreshing drink to sip on as the ice melts.
Sunscreen is another must-do and you need to have it with you in your purse or bag. And, just in case you missed those hard to reach spots, aloe vera gel for the sunburns.
Always drink 2-3 glasses of water before you go outside (whether you are walking to the store, jogging, or doing yard work. You won’t have to pee, because you’ll be sweating it out especially if your climate has high humidity.
Other prevention tips I grew up following:
- Dress for the heat. This means you wear lightweight and light-colored clothing. Hats, and even umbrellas, can make a huge difference. I would always carry a little battery-powered fan or even a squirt gun filled with water.
- Eat small meals and more often.
- Make your meals cool. Eat fruits and vegetables that have a high water content or that cool the body naturally. Stay away from hot food.
- Slow down. If you have to go out and jog, do it during the cooler part of the day, which is usually between 4-7 in the morning. If you have to work in the heat, make sure to have plenty of water on hand, and take frequent breaks.
- Take cold showers during the hottest parts of the day. Drink a glass of water before and after your shower. Don’t blow dry your hair — let it air dry. Sometimes if it’s too humid, I take 2-3 showers that day.
- Don’t forget about your pets. The same tips and tricks apply to them regarding water and bathing. Keep them inside as often as possible and make sure they are hydrated.
- If you have children, don’t leave them locked in the car — and the same goes for pets.
Know The Symptoms Of Heat Illnesses
One thing we always had to be aware of is how we are feeling. This is a key indicator that something isn’t right and if you feel off, drink water. Sometimes, though, it may be too late to drink water.
Here are the two main things you need to watch out for. The information comes from the Louisiana Department of Health.
Signs of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating; weakness; cold, pale and clammy skin; fast, weak pulse; nausea or vomiting, and fainting. If you suspect you have heat exhaustion. Move to a cooler location, lie down and loosen your clothing, sip water, and apply cool, wet cloths to as much of your body as possible. If you have vomited and it continues, seek medical attention immediately.
Signs of heatstroke include high body temperature (above 103°F); hot, red, dry or moist skin; rapid and strong pulse and possible unconsciousness. If you suspect you or someone else has heat stroke, call 911 immediately. This is a medical emergency. Move the person to a cooler environment and use cool cloths or a bath to reduce the person’s body temperature. Do not give fluids.
In 2005, when I moved from Louisiana to Georgia, I was stunned to find that not many people knew to drink water during the summer. In fact, the idea of planning for the heat was considered weird or odd to many of the people I’ve met, until I explained where I was from. Different areas don’t have the type of heat that we do in Louisiana (Texas and Florida, as well) and many don’t encounter heat-related illnesses until it is too late.
With climate change heating up the planet, places like the Arctic Circle are experiencing triple digits for the first time and they don’t know how to deal with extreme heat. If you plan for it, you can deal with it safely.
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