15 / 12 / 2020

Heatwave deaths in elderly double over 20 years as climate change hits health

Heat-related deaths in the UK among older people have more than doubled since the early 2000s, a new report published in The Lancet has revealed.

Heat-related deaths in the UK among older people have more than doubled since the early 2000s, a new report published in The Lancet has revealed.

The picture is similar around the globe, with experts warning that climate change will overwhelm healthcare systems without “urgent action”.

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, compiled by experts from more than 35 institutions including the World Health Organization and University College London, found that there were 8,500 heat-related deaths among older people in the UK in 2018, more than twice as many as in the early 2000s.

Older people are vulnerable to extreme heat because they they are more likely to have a chronic medical condition such as coronary heart disease or respiratory problems that changes normal body responses to heat. They are also more likely to take prescription medicines that affect the body’s ability to control its temperature.

Across the world,  the last two decades have seen a 54 per cent increase in heat-related deaths in older people. A record 2.9 billion additional days of heatwave exposure affected the over-65s in 2019, it found  – almost twice the previous high.

The authors also warned that climate-related health shocks may arise in future due to “difficulties anticipating the impacts of extreme heat and finding successful ways to adapt”.

Heat is increasingly affecting people’s ability to work outdoors in developing regions, with “significant” economic implications. Last year saw a continued loss in productivity, with India accounting for 40 per cent of the total 302 billion work hours lost.

Heat and drought are also driving up “sharp increases” in exposure to wildfires, the report found, resulting in burns, heat and lung damage from smoke, as well as the displacement of communities.

Some 128 countries have experienced an increase in population exposure to wildfires since the early 2000s, with the USA seeing one of the largest increases.

By the end of the century, the report found that the projected sea level rise could threaten the displacement of up to 565 million people, exposing them to a “wide range of health harms”.

But despite the rising threat, new data in the report highlights that healthcare capacity to deal with these future health shocks is still not enough, despite improvements.

Only half of countries surveyed have drawn up national health and climate plans, with just four reporting “adequate” national funding, and less than half of countries have conducted vulnerability and adaptation assessments for health. However, two-thirds of people surveyed in several global cities said they expect climate change to seriously compromise public health infrastructure.

Researchers also warn that climate change is leading to “more favourable conditions” for the spread of deadly infectious diseases such as dengue fever, malaria, and vibriosis.

“If we wish to reduce the risk of future pandemics, we must prioritise action on the climate crisis – one of the most powerful forces driving zoonoses today,” said Dr Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet.

“Now is the time for us all to take the environmental determinants of health more seriously – we must address the climate emergency, protect biodiversity, and strengthen the natural systems on which our civilisation depends. This is a moment we cannot afford to ignore. Just as we have seen with Covid-19, delayed action will cause avoidable deaths.”

By limiting temperature increases to “well below” two degrees centigrade, and aligning climate and pandemic recovery, the world can deliver near-term and long-term health, the authors argue.

“The pandemic has shown us that when health is threatened on a global scale, our economies and ways of life can come to a standstill,” said Dr Ian Hamilton, executive director of the Lancet Countdown.

“The threats to human health are multiplying and intensifying due to climate change, and unless we change course our healthcare systems are at risk of being overwhelmed in the future.

“This year’s devastating US wildfires and tropical storms in the Caribbean and Pacific, coinciding with the pandemic, have tragically illustrated that the world doesn’t have the luxury of dealing with one crisis at a time.”