Climate Change and Health: Lessons Learned from Older Americans

To continue the Agency’s efforts to expand the conversation on climate change, we are highlighting EPA climate change research with Science Matters articles. This post features research exploring the health effects of climate change and older Americans. 

Climate Change and Health: Lessons Learned from Older Americans
EPA researchers are exploring the links between climate change and health effects for older Americans. 

OldercouplestrollingClimate change is affecting a growing population of at-risk older Americans. Studies by EPA researchers and others find that seniors aged 65 and older are more vulnerable to hot temperatures and extreme weather events—effects which will become more frequent as the climate changes.

In a recent paper, “Climate Change and Older Americans: State of the Science” (Environ Health Perspect 121:15–22. 2013), EPA researchers reviewed the current “state of the science” about the links between climate change and health effects impacting older Americans.

The paper explores connections between what is expected to be an increase in the population of older Americans living in places relatively more affected by climate change. “Life expectancy has increased at the same time that we see a huge bubble of baby boomers headed into retirement. These demographic changes are happening even as the effects of climate change are becoming more widely recognized,” explains EPA economist and lead author Janet Gamble.

To assess the vulnerability of older Americans to climate change, the research team performed an extensive literature search.  From more than 400 citations identified, they selected nearly 100 papers to review that most closely addressed key terms describing characteristics of the older life stage; their vulnerability to climate-related impacts, and their overall health and well-being.

Older adults comprise 13% of the U.S. population today, but are expected to account for approximately 20% by 2040. They are also a diverse group, with differences in age, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, degree of community or family support, general health or pre-existing medical conditions, and disability. These differences ultimately determine the extent of older adults’ vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

In addition, location matters.  “Older adults are retiring in areas, such as Florida, that experience a higher rate of extreme weather events,” notes Gamble, adding that more that 50% of older adults reside in only nine states, with Florida, California, New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania accounting for the top five.

Regions with higher levels of older adults, such as the five states mentioned above, are likely to be particularly at risk to changing precipitation patterns, tropical storms, flooding, and the urban heat island effect, a term describing the warming of urban areas relative to their rural surroundings due to the prevalence of buildings, roads, and other dark, heat-absorbing surfaces.

The report finds that older adults living in poverty or on fixed incomes are likely to experience greater exposure to some climate-related impacts, especially the effects of heat waves or hurricanes. Poverty is a primary contributor to social vulnerability, as financial status affects their ability to respond quickly and effectively. Older adults living in poverty can be more vulnerable to property damage and loss due to lack of insurance, limited personal finances, and poor credit worthiness.  In addition, older adults living in poverty may not have transportation to evacuate an area during an extreme weather event and may live in substandard housing, also increasing their risks.

The authors highlight a number of measures, called adaptations, that may address such vulnerability.

Such adaptations promote effective community responses to risks thought to be climate-related and may include: community support networks, subsidization of air conditioners, and community-based registries to help identify and reach those who require evacuation assistance. Similarly, planting trees or installing green roofs can reduce the urban heat island effect.

Identifying effective adaptation measures and outlining the best ways to implement them continue to be a challenge.Oldercoupletakecellphonepicture

When asked about next steps, Gamble states, “I think there is more work to be done in assessing the vulnerability of at-risk populations. As a first step, we need to communicate the climate risks experienced by older adults to decision makers, public health and safety officials, and caregivers and advocates of aging populations.  Also, in the near term, it may be possible to build on and adapt some of the response strategies developed for heat waves and hurricanes and apply them to the broader set of climate change impacts affecting older adults.”

By investigating the relationship between climate change stressors and vulnerability to at-risk life stages such as older Americans, EPA researchers are helping to inform communities and others so they can be better prepared to protect human health.

Learn More

Climate Change and Older Americans: State of the Science (Online abstract)

EPA Research: Climate Change and Health

Preparing for Extreme Heat

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Aging and Environmental Impacts

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

I’m lucky to have elderly parents in relatively good health. Recently, I took them for their routine medical tests and they passed them with flying colors. But, in my mother’s case there was one test result that was somewhat surprising. After the good news regarding her cholesterol and sugar levels, he said “…everything is fine, but you’re slightly dehydrated…” But, why? My mother confessed, “I’m simply not thirsty. I have to force myself to drink water.”

In fact, not too long ago I had translated a fact sheet for EPA’s Aging Initiative which dealt with the issue of water and other environmental impacts on adults in their golden years. The fact is that the elderly may be at a greater risk of dehydration because as they age they actually lose the thirst sensation. They do not feel the same urge to drink as often as when they were younger. Furthermore, some of the medications they are taking for other health conditions may increase the risk of dehydration. So, I had to actually explain to her that her lack of thirst was actually part of the process of aging and required special attention.

On the other hand, long term exposure to environmental contaminants in drinking water and recreational activities may further compromise the health of an adult of advanced years. For example, long-term exposure to lead may contribute to high blood pressure as well as memory and concentration problems, among other ailments. Air pollutants may aggravate lung diseases in the elderly, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma.

So, while we encourage the adults of advanced years to engage in outdoor activities as much as possible, it is wise to consult the Air Quality Index before going out and follow public notices on drinking water to take precautions as necessary.

You may find additional EPA resources which have been translated into 15 languages to help us protect this important segment of the population.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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El envejecimiento y los impactos ambientales

Sobre la autor: Lina M. F. Younes ha trabajado en la EPA desde el 2002 y está a cargo del Grupo de Trabajo sobre Comunicaciones Multilingües. Como periodista, dirigió la oficina en Washington de dos periódicos puertorriqueños y ha laborado en varias agencias gubernamentales.

Tengo la suerte de que mis padres todavía gozan de buena salud para ser personas de edad avanzada. Recientemente, los llevé a sus pruebas médicas de rutina y todos los resultados fueron favorables. Sin embargo, en el caso de mi madre, uno de los resultados fue motivo de cierta preocupación. Después de las buenas nuevas de que su colesterol y azúcar, el médico dijo “….todo está bien, pero está levemente deshidratada…” ¿Qué cómo? Mi madre confesó, “simplemente no me da sed, tengo que hacer un esfuerzo para beber agua”.

De hecho, hace un tiempo atrás, traduje una hoja informativa para la Iniciativa de EPA para los Ancianos que trataba sobre el tema del agua y otros impactos ambientales en los adultos de los años dorados. La realidad es que los ancianos tienen mayores riesgos de deshidratación porque con el pasar de los años se pierde el sentido de sed. Simplemente no sienten el deseo de beber como cuando eran jóvenes. Además, algunos de los medicamentos que suelen tomar por condiciones que le afectan la salud a esa edad podrían aumentar sus riesgos de deshidratación. Le tuve que explicar a mi madre que esa falta de sed era parte del proceso de envejecer y requiere atención especial.

Por otra parte, la exposición a largo plazo de contaminantes ambientales en el agua potable y actividades de recreo podrían afectar adversamente la salud de un adulto de edad avanzada. Por ejemplo, la exposición a largo plazo al plomo puede contribuir a la alta presión sanguínea, puede afectar la memoria o problemas de concentración y otros padecimientos. Los contaminantes atmosféricos pueden agravar la salud de los pulmones de los ancianos particularmente en el caso de la enfermedad crónica obstructiva pulmonar (COPD, por sus siglas en inglés) o el asma.

Mientras alentamos a los adultos de edad avanzada a participar en actividades al aire libre lo más posible, es prudente consultar el Índice de Calidad de Aire antes de salir y también seguir las notificaciones de agua potable para tomar las precauciones necesarias.

También ofrecemos recursos adicionales de EPA que hemos traducido en 15 idiomas para ayudar a proteger este importante segmento de nuestra población.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.