Summer Scorcher: Silent killer among seniors

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Heat mortality rates could rise as temperatures warm and extreme heat becomes more frequent

To many’s surprise… Heat is the top weather killer, surpassing hurricanes and tornadoes. About 12,000 Americans die of heat-related causes each year, and that threat is expected to worsen in next few decades.

It has been sweltering. Over 80% of our days this month have been at 90 degrees or hotter.

“A lot of people don’t have air conditioning, and then there’s the folks that have their air conditioning break and they can’t afford it under normal circumstances, then you throw in the fact that we’re in the middle of a COVID-19 crisis and there are people without work.” Jeff Smith of the Salvation Army is proud to cool off those in need, “it’s not an overnight shelter but it provides relief from the heat, ” when Heat Advisories and Warnings are issued.

“When it gets hot it May, that’s when the need goes up,” he explains.

This year a record-breaking 208 fans were donated to low income families, the elderly, and homeless, “so the fan drive will get us through the rest of the summer and even into September, a lot of times September is still warm.”

Coming earlier and lasting later, seasons are shifting, summers are growing longer.
In Springfield, the first 85 degree day is coming more than 2 weeks earlier since 1970.

Summers are getting steamier, warming by 1.6 degrees since 1970.

That seemingly small change in average means warm is the norm, and more extreme heat days are likely.

In fact, in Springfield we find 7 more days with the heat index over 90 degrees compared to 1979.
More heat danger days put us at a greater risk for heat sickness.

“Heat sickness can initially occur as simple as a headache. Sometimes people will progress, they may develop nausea and vomiting, additionally they might become confused, they may have hallucinations. And, it could be so severe that they even pass out,” explains Anita West, Nurse Practitioner at Mercy. She finds these symptoms most often in construction, landscaping, and warehouse workers who are exposed to the heat for hours at time, but age is another risk factor.

“The elderly are not able to regulate their body temperature as well as younger adults,” she adds that medications and underlying chronic illnesses make them vulnerable to heat exposure, “maybe they have congestive heart failure or kidney disease and they’re not allowed to drink as much, so they can already have a predisposition for dehydration. So then when you add heat exposure on top of that, or heat sickness, it can really be a very dangerous combination.”

Sadly, more than 80% of heat victims are over 60 years old, making our Baby Boomers vulnerable to the increasing extreme heat with climate change. One study shows that without emission cuts by 2100, heat-related deaths in Missouri could sky-rocket. The death rate could be 8 times higher, an increasing trend seen nationwide.

Neighbors checking on neighbors is often considered seniors’ best defense in the heat, “everyone has one thing in common: They’re in need,” reminds Jeff. Something to remember as summer sweats on.

For children, hot cars are often to blame for heat sickness and mortality, more than half are forgotten in the car. Since 1998, 860 children have died in hot cars, 26 of them in Missouri.
In 2018, a record 53 children died this way across the country. 11 children have died so far this year.
Remember, it takes just minutes for the car to get dangerously hot.

To learn more about the fan program and cooler centers at the Salvation Army, or to make a donation, click here: https://www.salvationarmyspringfield.org/

To learn more about the Climate Central research done on heat and mortality rate in seniors, click here: https://ccimgs-2020.s3.amazonaws.com/2020HeatAndSeniors/2020HeatAndSeniors_Final0623.pdf

To learn more about child hot car deaths, click here: https://www.noheatstroke.org/

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