Harvard researchers have found that seemingly small changes in summer temperature swings — as little as one degree — may shorten life expectancies for medically ill older adults. And this environmental factor could result in thousands of additional deaths each year. This is the first study to consider the impact of climate changes on life expectancy.
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Forget about heat waves for a moment; we now know that high day-to-day variability in summer temperatures reduce the amount of time we live. For susceptible people, the researchers call this “harmful.” Climate change is to blame for varying summer temperatures, particularly in mid-region U.S. states. More volatile temperature swings could be far worse.
Though heat waves can be deadly, even minor temperature changes can be fatal to older adults with diabetes, heart failure, chronic lung disease, or past heart attacks.
Looking at the long-term health of 3.7 million chronically ill adults over 65, the study found that the years when the summer temperature swings were larger had higher death rates than years with smaller swings. Every one-degree (Celsius) increase in variability increased the death rate for this segment of the population by between 2.8% and four percent. Diabetics had the biggest risk at four percent. Researchers estimate that, every year, these summer temperature changes could be causing 10,000 deaths.
One positive note: the risk was lower for people who lived in cities with more green space.
The reasons behind this remain murky. It’s likely that older adults with chronic health problems not only can’t handle extreme heat well, but also are less resilient than others when it comes to bigger-than-usual temperature swings. People adapt to certain temperatures. But what we don’t adapt to very well are unexpected fluctuations in weather.
Whether or not one blames climate change, the results are still striking. It seems as though ensuring you are in a temperature-controlled environment is important in the summer. Of course, we should still spend time outdoors on those summer days that offer typical summer temperatures.