How extreme heat is killing the elderly in Europe
The human toll of last year’s scorching summer conditions has been laid bare in new research which estimates that more than 61,000 people died in Europe from the record-breaking 2022 heatwaves, with the highest loss of life recorded among the over-80s.
In Britain, up to 3,469 people are believed to have died from the high temperatures – the highest number in any given year.
Such a large number of heat-related European deaths has not been recorded since the summer months of 2003, when more than 70,000 people perished – in what, to this day, remains the continent’s most catastrophic natural disaster of the 21st century.
Yet these mass mortality events may soon become a thing of the near future as global temperatures continue to rise, according to the research from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal).
Published in Nature Medicine, the study estimates that, in the absence of an effective adaptive response, Europe will face an average of more than 68,000 premature deaths each summer by 2030 and more than 94,000 by 2040.
In light of such frightening projections, there is an “urgent need to reassess and substantially strengthen [heat] prevention plans,” says Dr Hicham Achebak, one of the paper’s lead authors.
Should countries fail to do so, it will be the elderly of Europe who pay the price.
The findings of Dr Achebak and his colleagues show that people aged 80 and over accounted for more than half of last summer’s heat-related deaths (36,848), with older women especially vulnerable.
Indeed, the analysis suggests that, overall, 63 per cent more women than men died due to the heat, with the highest incidence in the Mediterranean region.
For the elderly, increased vulnerability can be explained by several factors.
“First, as people age, their bodies become less efficient at regulating temperature and adapting to heat stress,” says Dr Raquel Nunes, Assistant Professor in Environmental Change and Public Health, at Warwick Medical School.
This makes it harder for older individuals to move heat from the core to the skin and maintain a stable internal temperature during hot conditions. Once the body can no longer cool itself, death can come in a matter of hours.
“Second, older people are more likely to have pre-existing health conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases or respiratory problems, which can be exacerbated by heat,” says Dr Nunes.
There are also the issues of living alone and limited mobility, which can hinder an elderly person’s access to cold places, placing them at heightened risk during a heat wave, she adds.
For much of Europe, last summer was one characterised by oppressive heat waves, droughts and forest fires that wreaked havoc across the continent.
In Britain, the thermostat pushed beyond 40C for the first time ever, bringing the nation – ill-equipped for such high temperatures – to a grinding halt as roads melted, houses caught alight, and water supplies dried up.
According to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the summer of 2022 was Europe’s hottest ever. Overall, last year was the world’s fifth warmest since at least 1850, with the previous eight years being the hottest on record.
This acceleration has proven particularly acute in Europe, where temperatures have increased by more than twice the global average over the last 30 years.
Whereas many parts of the world are used to extreme temperatures, and have adapted accordingly, there is a distinct lack of heat resilience in Europe, experts say.
Source: The Telegraph