When we think about issues that impact the lives of our elder community, we think about health care costs, food insecurity, care and housing issues, loneliness, financial predators, abuse or neglect or other similar, related issues. What we may not associate as an issue impacting our senior friends is climate change.
Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. These shifts may be natural, such as through variations in the solar cycle. But since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas.
The key indicators of climate change are varied and can include increased land and ocean temperatures around the globe, rising sea levels, ice loss, and extreme weather events, including hurricanes, heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, and floods.
According to the World Health Organization, by 2030, 1 in 6 people in the world will be aged 60 years or over. Many older adults have limited mobility, increasing their risks before, during, and after an extreme weather event. Aging and some medications can change the body’s ability to respond to heat. This puts older adults more at risk for heat illnesses and death as the climate warms.
People aged 60 and over can be particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change as they can:
- Have health conditions that make them more sensitive to climate hazards and may worsen existing illnesses.
- Have limited mobility, increasing their risks before, during and after an extreme weather event.
- Have more risk for heat illnesses and death as the climate warms.
- Have more compromised immune systems, which make them more prone to severe illness from inset and water related diseases that my become more common with climate change.
- Have dependence on others for medical care and assistance with daily life, increasing their vulnerability to extreme weather events.
According to a recent United States Environmental Protection Agency report, many climate-related threats affect older adults’ health. These threats may include the following:
Heat Related Illnesses
Heat illnesses can occur when a person is exposed to high temperatures and their body cannot cool down. Increases in average and extreme temperatures and heat waves are expected to lead to more heat illnesses and deaths among vulnerable groups, including older adults. Even small temperature increases may pose risks to older adults in some regions. Certain factors such as pre-existing medical conditions like diabetes, can further increase their risks. Older adults who live in cities may also be subject to the urban heat island effect, where surfaces live pavements absorb sunlight and radiate heat, making cities hotter than outlying areas.
Climate change may increase outdoor air pollutants, such as ground level ozone and particulate matter in wildfire smoke and dust from droughts. Air pollution can increase the risk of heart attacks for older adults, especially those who are diabetic or obese. It can worsen conditions like asthma and COPD. Expose to ground level ozone can also harem lung functioning. Earlier spring warming, precipitation changes, and rising temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations can increase the length and severity of pollen season. Data show the ragweed pollen season is already becoming longer in some US locations. Allergens like ragweed pollen can worsen existing respiratory conditions and contribute to the onset of asthma. Older adults who live in buildings that are older or have poor ventilation may also be more at risk for exposure to indoor air pollutants. These pollutants can include bacteria and mold cause by water damage from extreme weather events, such as floods and storm surges.
Insect and Tick Related Diseases
Warmer temperatures associated with climate change can increase mosquito development and biting rates, while increased rainfall can create breeding sites for mosquitoes. West Nile virus, spread by mosquitoes, poses greater risks for older adults with compromised immune systems. Many people do not experience symptoms from West Nile virus. However, some people develop serious, and even fatal sickness.
Studies show that climate change has already contributed to an expanded range for ticks. This could put more people, including older adults, at risk of contracting Lyme Disease. Adults aged 55-59 have the highest numbers of confirmed and probably cases of Lyme disease in the United States. Lyme disease can cause chronic pain and neurological problems if not treated early.
Injuries and Deaths
Older adults often have limited mobility, making it difficult to get to safety during extreme weather events. Extreme events can also interrupt older adults’ medical care, making it hard for them to be transported with their correct medications, medical records, and health equipment. Power outages after a storm can also affect elevators, air conditioning or heat, and electronically powered medical equipment, making older adults particularly vulnerable.
Mental Health Effects
Extreme weather events like hurricanes, flood, and wildfires can cause emotional trauma. Older people who have cognitive disabilities like dementia can have a harder time responding to and coping with these events. Other climate-related hazards can also contribute to mental health effects. For example, long-term exposure to air pollutions is linked with faster cognitive decline in older adults.
Climate change will impact water resources in many ways. For example, changes in water and air temperatures, heavier and longer rains, flooding, and rising sea levels can introduce disease-carrying organisms into drinking water supplies and recreational waters. Because many older adults have compromised immune systems, they have a higher risk for contracting gastrointestinal or other diseases from untreated contaminated water. Water-related diseases can often be more severe for older adults and can sometimes lead to long-term illness or even death. Climate change may also increase the likelihood of harmful levels of certain types of algae and bacteria, making drinking and recreational water sources unsafe. For example, swimming in waters with harmful algal bloom can cause respiratory illnesses and eye irritation. People with chronic respiratory diseases, specifically asthma, are at increased risk of illness from harmful algal blooms.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends the following steps to decrease the health impact of climate change for older adults, their families, and caretakers.
- Stay cool and hydrated. Drink enough water. Wear loose, light-colored clothing, and stay in air-conditioned spaces as much as possible. If you do not have an air conditioner, reach out to your friends and family. Find out about public cooling centers in your community.
- Prevent bites. Use insect repellents to help avoid tick and bug bites. You can also take steps to help reduce mosquitoes inside and outside your home.
- Make a Weather Emergency Plan. Create an emergency supply kit with medical equipment and records, food, water, and a first-aid kit in case of a weather emergency. Set up a support network and update your family, friends, and caretakers on your whereabouts if you need to relocate during a weather event.
- Check in with neighbors, friends, and family. Check in with older loved ones or neighbors, particularly if they live alone and have health conditions that could put them at risk during or after an extreme weather event. Be sure they have emergency supplies, a plan for shelter, and transportation during extreme weather events.
- Be aware of your local community resources. Many local senior centers provide shelter and transportation resources for older adults during extreme weather. If you have a disability, contact your local emergency management office to see if you can get assistance during an emergency.
- Stay informed about air quality. Check local air pollution levels and make informed choices about outdoor activities and possible health impacts. You can obtain current local air quality information from the local news, cellphone weather apps, or checking air quality at airnow.gov.
The growing number of issues surrounding climate change have heightened our awareness of the impacts it has on the health and well-being of our vulnerable older adults. We must continue to work with our seniors to provide better education and support to our elder friends and to help them to face the many challenges associated with climate change.