People of all ages — not just the elderly — are more at risk of death and emergency room visits as the earth warms, a recent study has found.
The study, published this month by researchers at Brown University and the Rhode Island Department of Health in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, focused on the population of Rhode Island. Researchers found that it didn’t need to be that hot for people to start visiting the ER in higher numbers — according to the study, a temperature of 75 degrees compared to 65 made heat-related emergency room visits increase by 3.3 percent. But, as it got hotter, the jump in visits was more acute: on days with highs of 85 degrees, ER visits jumped 23.9 percent compared to days with highs of 75 degrees. In addition, Rhode Island’s death rate increased by 4 percent on 85-degree days compared to 75-degree days.
“Our primary finding is that as temperatures increase, the number of emergency room visits and deaths increase,” Samantha Kingsley, a Brown University public health graduate student and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “But people were going to the hospital for heat-related reasons at temperatures below what we would typically consider extreme.”
And, according to the research, it wasn’t the elderly in Rhode Island that experienced the most emergency room visits. Instead, it was among the large age group of 18 to 64 year olds. The study’s authors weren’t sure exactly why this group seemed most susceptible to heat, but they did offer a few ideas.
“Whether stronger associations in this age group reflect increased opportunities for exposure (eg: through increased outdoor recreational or occupational activities), less careful attention to heat warnings, or are simply a function of the relatively lower baseline rate of [emergency room] admissions in this age group remains unclear,” the report states.
Previous studies and accounts have also linked higher temperatures to increased hospital visits and deaths, but in heat waves, the elderly have often been most at risk. Seniors may not be able to leave their homes if they’re too warm, and if they have health problems — such as heart disease — they may be less effective at circulating blood and keeping cool. This May, a heat wave in India killed about 2,000 people — many of whom were elderly.
The study warned that, if climate change continues to drive temperatures up, Rhode Island’s residents “would experience substantially higher morbidity and mortality.” If, by the end of this century, days in Rhode Island become 10 degrees warmer — a projection that’s on the high end of climate models — the summertime death rate in the state would increase by 1.5 percent, or about 80 additional deaths per summer. In addition, the ER visit rate would jump by 25 percent, or an increase of about 1,500 visits every summer. And since other states — not just Rhode Island — are expected to see higher temperatures with climate change, the study’s results could serve to make residents around the U.S. wary of high heat.
Heat’s connection to hospital visits and deaths is well-established, but climate change has been linked to other health impacts too. Increased temperatures and wetter springs can help disease vectors, like mosquitoes, expand their range, meaning that more people are at risk of contracting disease. And increased temperatures can also exacerbate air pollution, making the air more dangerous to breathe, especially for people with asthma. In April, the White House announced a plan to tackle the health impacts of climate change, one that involved educating Americans about the climate-related risks to health and private and public investments in health-related projects.