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Jan. 18, 2022, 10:38 a.m. EST

Climate change exposes older adults to more of these health hazards—here’s how to prepare

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By Jenny Wisniewski

This article is reprinted by permission from  .

With  over one-third  of California long-term care communities located in areas that are at high risk for fire, it would be difficult to find someone more on edge than a long-term-care facility operator during California’s fire season. 

Unless you are a care manager for older adults in Florida during hurricane season.

While Liz Barlowe of Barlowe & Associates in Seminole, Fla., and her clients have evaded severe storms, she creates a disaster plan with her clients annually. This includes a transfer to a safe place for them to stay with access to medical attention and an ample supply of food, or the presence of a caregiver who can ride out the storm with them in their home. 

The recent U.N. Climate Change Conference confirmed what people like Barlowe already know: Climate change is causing increasingly severe weather events that are impacting public health and safety.

Older adults are particularly vulnerable to these impacts. While global leaders work toward containing warming, the rest of us can do our part toward minimizing the associated health risks. Being aware of the following five risks and taking simple precautions can go a long way toward staying safe:

1. Greater exposure to extreme weather events

Many older adults in the U.S. live in areas that are disproportionately impacted by forest fires, hurricanes, coastal flooding and heat waves. For example, nearly 20% live in a county struck by a hurricane or tropical storm during the past decade. Among those at highest risk during a weather event and potential evacuation are individuals with mobility challenges or living with dementia.

A lack of available medical care can compound the risk for all older adults, and especially those with chronic health conditions, in ensuing days and weeks.

Hurricane Katrina, in which 60% of flood-related deaths were older adults, hit close to home for Michael Smyer, professor at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., and founder of Growing Greener, an organization that encourages older adults and others to work toward climate change. Born and raised in New Orleans, Smyer realized the risk for all older adults, including those in long-term care communities. 

“If we think about the people who were already at risk because of chronic illness before the storm in New Orleans, then you put them at risk when a facility is flooded and power is out, they are at very highly elevated risk for adverse outcomes,” Smyer said.

Related : How climate change could impact your retirement plans

For those aging in place, preparing for an extreme weather event is important. This includes putting together a  “go bag” of essentials including prescription medications and a change of clothing, arranging an evacuation route and family communication plan and setting up weather and  emergency alert  notifications.

2. A rise in heat-related illness

Heat is the leading cause of  weather-related deaths  in the U.S., and heat waves are only expected to increase in frequency, severity and duration.

The good news is that these deaths are preventable, mainly by ensuring that those at risk remain in an air-conditioned environment during a heat wave. This means remaining vigilant as a community and intervening on behalf of older adults when necessary. 

“It is a population that we need to make sure is very well connected to family or other social networks that will look out for them during these events,” said Ruth McDermott-Levy, a professor at Villanova University and expert in environmental health and public health nursing.

An older adult’s body does not sense heat as readily as a younger adult due to thermoregulation, explained McDermott-Levy. It is why an older adult may be wearing a thick wool sweater while the home temperature is 80 degrees. The person’s body doesn’t have the capacity to sense the heat even though they are experiencing the heat.

Also see: 6 ways to build climate change into your retirement planning

Consequently, during a dangerously hot day, they may not respond to the conditions as quickly as a younger person might. In addition, chronic health conditions and the medications prescribed for these conditions can further increase the risk of an adverse response to heat.

3. More vector-borne illnesses

Many older adults lead active, social lives. With retirement comes fewer commitments on their time, and in turn, more opportunities for outdoor activities like golfing, hiking or fishing. These are the individuals most at risk for exposure to disease carried by mosquitoes or ticks such as West Nile fever, Lyme disease or the Zika virus disease.

Vectors, organisms that spread infection by carrying a pathogen from one host to another, thrive in warm, wet conditions. The increased risk of exposure to vectors is due to a lengthening of warm-weather seasons and an increase in the insects’ geographic range.

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