Extreme heat poses an increasing threat to the public, as heat waves are expected to become more frequent, more intense and longer-lasting due to climate change. Although the adverse health impacts of heat are well documented among older adults, less is known about the potential impacts of heat on young and middle-aged adults.
A new study from researchers at UBC and Boston University examined the association between extreme temperatures and visits to the emergency department in the U.S., finding especially pronounced risks among young and middle-aged adults. Study co-author Dr. Kate Weinberger (she/her), an assistant professor at UBC’s school of population and public health, discusses the study’s results.
What does this research tell us about who is vulnerable during extreme heat events?
The results demonstrate that extreme heat is a threat to everyone’s health. We found that extreme temperatures were associated with a higher risk of emergency department visits for adults of all ages. But notably, the strongest association was among adults ages 18-64.
While the health risks of heat among older adults are well known, this new research suggests that heat contributes to a substantial number of emergency department visits among young and middle-aged adults.
Why are younger adults so at risk?
We need further research to get to the bottom of that. It could be a number of factors, including that younger adults are more likely to be working outdoors or participating in outdoor recreation. Younger adults may also not realize the extent to which they are at risk, which is why it’s so important to get the message out that extreme heat can be dangerous regardless of your age.
Why are we only starting to uncover this now?
Previous large-scale studies on extreme heat have largely looked at either mortality or hospitalizations among older adults. In contrast, we examined emergency department visits among adults of all ages, allowing us to gain a clearer picture of how heat may affect the health of both younger and older adults. By looking at emergency department visits as an indicator of the adverse health impacts of heat, we were able to capture illnesses that can be treated in a short period of time in an emergency department.
Were there other trends you identified?
We saw that days of extreme heat were associated with a higher risk of emergency department visits for all health causes, but also specifically for heat-related illness, renal disease and mental disorders.
Our results were also consistent with previous research showing that heat may be especially dangerous in regions with cooler climates that are less adapted to heat, an important takeaway for countries like Canada. As temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, the implementation of heat adaptation measures in these historically cooler regions will be critically important.
How can this research help us prepare for future heat waves?
The big takeaway is just how wide-ranging the health impacts of heat are in terms of age, geography and resulting health conditions. This can help health experts and policymakers anticipate what to expect and implement appropriate mitigation strategies. It also serves as an important reminder to everyone of just how dangerous heat can be.
The good news is that many heat-related health impacts can be prevented. Reducing heat exposure and increasing adaptive efforts will be even more important as we see more frequent and intense heat waves due to climate change.
The original news release for this study is available on the Boston University school of public health’s website.