older Americans

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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Active Aging Depends on Community Design

By Kevin Nelson

My grandfather lived to 97. He was a dynamic orator, frozen-food pioneer, and avid golfer. While he believed that professional success required mastery of a typewriter, he would attribute his long and prosperous life to a good brisk walk each morning. Wherever he lived, on the south side of Chicago or in a suburb on the fringe of the city, he sought out places to live that had ample sidewalks and walking paths to travel on foot to various destinations.

People, like my grandfather, had the desire to walk, run, or ride to keep active, but just as important is the ability to do each of things – that is, whether sidewalks or paths exist to provide safe places for activity. In other words, the infrastructure needs to exist—and be maintained—to give older Americans opportunities to stay active as they age.

Thankfully, there are many programs and national initiatives, such as the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, the National Complete Streets Coalition, among others, that promote walking and biking for all people and in all parts of the country. These organizations provide resources and tools to communities to help them assess the design and layout of their communities to learn whether their sidewalks and streets safe, convenient, and pleasant for all their residents to use.

It is crucial to build and design communities that accommodate a variety of users. Walkable neighborhoods have many environmental and health benefits such as improved air quality and reduction of physical injury and disease. These places can improve residents’ health by giving them opportunities to walk and bike to their destinations instead of driving. Not only does being active improve the health of the walkers and bikers, but the reduced driving reduces air pollution and traffic congestion, which benefits everyone in the community.

A new publication, “Making Healthy Places: Design and Building for Health, Well-being and Sustainability” (2011, Island Press), and website provide research about the connections between public health and community design that includes opportunities for people to stay active as they age. Our neighborhoods need to be designed with all users in mind, and this book provides information that can help communities build places that help seniors and everyone else to stay active.

Although my grandfather is no longer walking with us, he would be pleased to see that there are efforts nationwide to ensure that Americans of all ages have opportunities for that brisk walk each and every day.

About the author: Kevin Nelson, AICP is a Senior Policy Analyst at the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities. He can be reached at nelson.kevin@epa.gov.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

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.