Effects of Climate Change on Older Adults

Climate change threatens our health by producing extreme weather events, increasing the prevalence of communicable disease, and jeopardizing our access to food, fresh water, and clean air. Research shows that older adults are particularly susceptible to the health impacts of climate change. 

Disasters and extreme weather

Because many older adults have limited mobility, they experience higher health risks during and after natural disasters and extreme weather events. In addition, they are more likely to depend on caregivers and medical systems that can collapse during natural disasters. During evacuations, it is difficult to transport the medicines and medical equipment that some older adults may require. In addition, they are especially vulnerable to power outages; lack of access to elevators, air-conditioning or heat, and electrically-powered medical equipment is more likely to affect their well-being.

Heat illness

Because of the normal changes that come with aging, older adults are more vulnerable to heat illnesses, which occur when the body is exposed to high temperatures and cannot cool itself. Preexisting medical conditions, such diabetes or heart disease, increase the chances an older adult will have a negative reaction when exposed to high temperatures. 

Respiratory illness

Because of the natural aging process, older adults are less able to compensate for these environmental hazards, leading to more serious health effects.

Scientists have found that climate change contributes to air pollution in a variety of ways. Smoke from more frequent wildfires releases dangerous particles and droughts create dust. Air pollution increases the risk of heart attacks for older adults and contributes to lung problems such as asthma and COPD.  

In addition, warmer spring temperatures and higher levels of carbon dioxide have increased pollen levels, leading to more severe and long-lasting allergies. These environmental allergies exacerbate existing lung problems and lead to the development of asthma.

Vector-borne disease

Many older adults have compromised immune systems, which make them more prone to severe illness from insect- and water-related diseases that will become more prevalent as the climate warms. 

Scientist have already documented that warmer temperatures and increased rainfall is leading to larger populations of mosquitoes, which carry West Nile virus. About half of all people who contract West Nile Virus experience neurological symptoms. Older adults, especially those with compromised immune systems, are at significantly higher risk of experiencing a more serious case of West Nile Virus. 

Climate changes also contributes to the growth and expanded geographical range of ticks, which can spread many different serious diseases – most commonly Lyme disease, which can lead to chronic pain and neurological problems. Lyme disease is most prevalent among people ages 65-69 in the U.S.

For more information

Information about older adults and air quality from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Research about the populations who are most vulnerable to climate change from the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Data about the impacts of extreme events on human health from the U.S. Global Change Research Program.