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The number of older people at risk of heat exposure will double in the coming decades


Two big global shifts are underway. Climate change is making the planet hotter and changing the weather. Also, the world's population is aging. Put these two trends together, and here's what we'll probably get - far more older people at risk of heat exposure in the coming decades. NPR's Alejandra Borunda reports.

ALEJANDRA BORUNDA, BYLINE: One day in early spring, in Tucson, Ariz., it was already 100 degrees, so it was timely that heat was the topic on the meeting agenda for a group of seniors focused on climate resilience. They met at one of their members' homes.

GLADYS RICHARDSON: My name is Gladys Richardson.

BORUNDA: Gladys is 86. She poured glasses of iced tea to cool everyone down.


RICHARDSON: I now live in a independent senior community, having moved out of my home in Sam Hughes.

BORUNDA: Sam Hughes is a pretty quiet neighborhood in the middle of the city. Tucson was above 100 degrees for 89 days last year. In fact, 2023 broke just about every local heat record, and it was the hottest year on record worldwide.

Margo Newhouse is another member of the group. She says interest in heat resilience has picked up.

MARGO NEWHOUSE: There's been a big change, I think, in just this last year. At least we've seen this. And partly, it may be because of all those records that were broken.

BORUNDA: The team knows that heat is especially risky for older people like them. People don't sweat as much as they age, making it harder to cool down. Heat also makes existing medical problems, like cardiac issues, worse. And in both Arizona and across the world, older people are making up a larger fraction of the population every year.

DEBORAH CARR: What we see happening is the perfect storm of our world getting older and getting hotter.

BORUNDA: That's Deborah Carr. She's an expert on aging at Boston University and an author of a new study in Nature Communications. It found that climate change, plus a quickly aging population, means an extra 250 million seniors could be at risk of dangerous heat by 2050. That's at least double today's number.

CARR: Ever-rising numbers of old people - precisely those people who suffer most upon extreme weather events - are going to be exposed to even more extreme weather.

BORUNDA: Carr says an aging population is wonderful, but what's not wonderful is that so many more people will be in danger from heat.

CARR: If there's any takeaway message here, I think it's that climate change is the problem that we need to face.

BORUNDA: In fact, she says...

CARR: What we need to do is to change the planet to accommodate these needs of people who increasingly have the good fortune to live to older ages.

BORUNDA: The group in Tucson has that good fortune, and they're working on both parts of the problem - figuring out how to cut greenhouse gas emissions in their own city and also helping each other stay safe from the heat by establishing social connections. That's a well-known way to protect people. Margo explains that, after a deadly Chicago heat wave in 1995, scientists figured out that people were more likely to die if they lived in socially disconnected neighborhoods. But, Margo says...

NEWHOUSE: The neighborhood where fewer people died - there was a lot of activity on the streets. Churches had activities going on. People knew each other. They knew to look out for each other.

BORUNDA: So that's what this group is working on today - connecting people, especially the growing number of older ones in their own neighborhoods, to keep them safe from heat this summer and for years to come.

Alejandra Borunda, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARRACUDA SOUND'S "MIRAFLORES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alejandra Borunda
[Copyright 2024 NPR]