How Climate Change Affects the Health of Older Adults

Photo Credit: Thomas8047
Photo Credit: Thomas8047

Climate change and its consequences are an impending reality, ones that have both socio-emotional and physical effects on older adults. Our lives, livelihoods and health are intrinsically tied to that of the planet, so it is crucial to look at how we can improve resilience to climate change, especially in vulnerable populations like the elderly. Not all older people are the same as they react differently to the effects of climate change. However, there are a few trends that have been sighted to have a disproportional effect on older adults. These include:

Heatwaves: Heatwaves are one of the more direct consequences of global warming affecting senior citizens. More so than other populations, heatwaves can lead to severe heat strokes and dehydration in the elderly. This in turn can exacerbate existing medical conditions.

Air Pollution: We have all heard of or witnessed smog, the smoky, unseasonal fog that sets over cities and is caused by pollutants from industrial waste and fuel-guzzling vehicles. Smog comprises of several harmful chemicals that can damage lung tissue, reduce lung capacity and inflame airways. As the climate warms up, these chemicals mutate and their effects are exacerbated. This change in air quality can be a hard adjustment for older citizens especially those who grew up in a different climate. Additionally, older adults with existing heart and lung disease are particularly susceptible. Climate change is also causing a flux in pollen season, which is leading to increased and more severe allergens in the air.

Social Isolation: Seniors who live on their own do not always have access to help in emergency situations. Therefore, during weather emergencies, they are often stuck without access to basic services or a way out.

Climate Refugees: Natural disasters can lead to severe disruption and uncertainty in many people’s lives. These people may flee to other countries because their homes and livelihoods have been destroyed. Living in refugee camps without access to basic sanitation, clean water, medication and food, or the ability to pursue an income generating activity is especially hard on older adults. These types of events take a severe mental and physical toll on younger as well as older people.

New Diseases: It is a fact that as people get older, their immune system are not as strong as they used to be. Older adults are therefore more susceptible and less likely to make a full recovery from the newer and more dangerous forms of animal, air and water borne diseases due to climate change. Ebola and Zika Virus are just a couple of such infections that are currently plaguing societies, and have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable populations like the elderly.

Climate change is the reality of our time as it affects everyone. In any crisis, those who are at-risk because of poverty and health issues are most likely to be affected. Therefore, it is important that older adults recognize the effects and implications of climate change. Being conscious of one’s environmental footprint, building a community around oneself to turn to during emergencies, and taking small precautions like weatherproofing a person’s house or having an emergency evacuation plan mapped out to deal with weather irregularities can go a long way in safeguarding older adults from climate change.

Aging populations that lack the ability to take these precautions, such as those in poverty and especially in developing countries, should take on the challenge of teaching younger generations to recognize the effects of climate change and respect the planet. Younger generations in turn can seek more sustainable alternatives to natural resources, and pressure local governing bodies to create emergency plans for not just natural disasters but also more long-term climate change disasters such as droughts. This will ensure resilience for the overall community including the elderly.

Sachi Shah is an economics and development professional currently working with a foundation in New York City, USA.


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