Climate change and health Featured Speaker Series

The Impact of Climate Change on the Senior Population

Written by Rubul Thind

From air pollution caused by wildfires to extreme heat events, climate change continues to affect our lives and the health impacts are becoming increasingly clear. Clinical experts note that some populations are more at risk than others – including seniors.

June is Seniors’ Month, a good time to reflect on health issues particularly concerning to older adults – including the risks associated with soaring temperatures – like those being felt across Canada this week – and other climate-related events.

At the latest Sunnybrook Speaker Series, experts shared their insights about how climate change is impacting our health. Dr. Rajin Mehta, a geriatrician and internal medicine specialist and former head of Sunnybrook’s Division of Geriatric Medicine, shared his insights on how climate change, including extreme heat, can impact seniors’ health and well-being.

Temperature and its impact on the body

Temperature affects how humans feel and how bodies function.

“Humans can handle colder temperatures better than heat,” said Dr. Mehta. “The slightest change of just a few degrees in temperature elevation can impact the cells in our bodies, and in turn affect our organs.”

Neurological, liver, cardiac, and renal systems can all be affected by increased temperature, Dr. Mehta said. For older adults, who often have a number of illnesses or health conditions at once (known as multi-morbidity), this can be particularly concerning.

“Higher temperatures affect the function of these very important organs and if someone has more than one impairment in these systems, it can become very complicated, very fast,” said Dr. Mehta.

As people age, it also becomes more difficult for their bodies to regulate temperature, a process known as thermoregulation. Seniors have a decreased ability to thermoregulate, which makes it harder for them to adjust to hotter temperatures, even if the elevation in heat is minimal. This can lead to things like dehydration or heat stroke.

Unfortunately, not all seniors have access to things like air conditioning that can help minimize the effects of extreme heat.

“A person’s socioeconomic status is a critical aspect to consider because it has a direct correlation to one’s health and well-being.”, said Dr. Mehta.

Seniors can also be at increased risk of heat-related illnesses if they are taking certain types of medication, such as anticholinergic drugs which are commonly used to treat bladder and gastrointestinal conditions. These medications can impair the body’s ability to sweat, which is a natural way to cool down when temperatures rise.

Indirect Impacts to Health: Food Insecurity & Displacement

 A concern that’s top of mind for many, especially seniors who may already have limited finances, is food insecurity.

“We cannot forget that global issues impact us locally as well,” said Dr. Mehta.

“Seniors are disproportionately affected by poverty, and many are faced with the decision of paying for food or other costs of living like rent.”

Older people are also at a greater risk of displacement due to climate change, Dr. Mehta said. In the event of an environmental emergency such as a tornado or a flood, older people with limited mobility are more likely to face barriers getting to safety.

Given the increase in climate-change related natural disasters, it is important for seniors to have a safety plan in place in the event of an emergency, Dr. Mehta said, especially if there are underlying health concerns or mobility issues.

Key Takeaways

It is crucial to remember that climate change impacts all of us, but the senior population faces heightened risks.

However, there are steps older adults can take to protect their health, such as remembering to stay hydrated and cool, and talking to a health-care provider about how things like extreme heat events may impact their health or interact with their medications.

For seniors experiencing food insecurity, community resources like food banks can provide help. Some organizations also offer support for delivering food bank services to people who have limited mobility and are unable to leave their homes.

Seniors with limited mobility can also make a plan for family or friends to check in on them or help them find alternative living arrangements in the case of an extreme weather event or hazard.

Climate change impacts everyone, but seniors are especially at risk. Offering support, planning preventative measures, and talking openly about the issue can help lessen the risks and impacts caused by climate change among the senior population.

About the author

Rubul Thind