Dubbed the “silent killer,” heat is responsible for more deaths than hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding or extreme cold, and has been the greatest weather-related cause of death in the U.S. for the past 30 years. Estimates from the CDC indicate that heat deaths jumped 56% between 2018 and 2021.
Extreme heat is especially dangerous for older adults. Roughly 12,000 Americans die each year from heat-related causes, and more than 80% of those are age 60 and older, who are at greater risk due to higher rates of underlying conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Even in the absence of health conditions, older people don’t adjust well to dramatic changes in temperature.
Roughly 12,000 Americans die each year from heat-related causes, and more than 80% of those are age 60 and older.
“The rapid acceleration of hotter summers means either more people will continue to die unnecessarily or we find ways to adapt our homes and local infrastructure to turn down the temperature,” said Vivek Shandas, PhD, professor, founder of the Sustaining Urban Places Research Lab.
This past summer marked the nation’s third hottest on record: Temperatures soared across the Southwest in June; wildfires burned across northern California and the Pacific Northwest in July; Midwestern farms experienced drought conditions in August; and a heat surge strained western power grids in September.
“Most northern regions of the U.S. are underprepared for the frequency, intensity and duration of the emerging and accelerating heat waves,” said Shandas, “which means that communities need to be informed, adapt infrastructure, and develop responsive policies.”
And the number of heat-related deaths across the country are likely much higher. Deaths from heat are not always reported as such, and experts say many are undercounted or misclassified. Looking at just 61% of the U.S. population in counties, a study in the journal Environmental Epidemiology estimated an average of 5,609 deaths attributable to heat each year.
State and federal response
“States and regions are taking action primarily through developing policies that safeguard those living in rental housing and who work outdoors,” said Shandas. “In Oregon, the legislature passed a bill establishing tenants’ right to have cooling units in their home. The bill requires landlords to allow most types of air conditioners in rental housing and prohibits blanket bans on AC units. Other states and regions are taking similar actions.”
And in a first, California Gov. Gavin Newsom just signed into law a heat wave ranking system bill aimed at preparing the state for dangerous extreme heat events. The law takes effect in January.
At the national level, the Biden Administration recently launched Heat.gov in July, which provides clear, timely and science-based information developed to help the public and decision-makers understand and reduce the health risks of extreme heat.
Prepare your home before the heat hits again
Preparing a home for a heat wave may help keep loved ones safe. Some preparation is easily and cheaply managed, but larger projects – such as insulating, installing ceiling fans, or adding solar panels – take planning, time and expense.
Before next summer rolls around, consider improving your home’s energy efficiency, and create a checklist to be prepared for next summer:
Check thermostats – Keep extra batteries on hand. Set a summer temperature and adjust the thermostat closer to outdoor temperatures (as long as you and your family are sufficiently cooled). About 78 degrees Fahrenheit is a reasonable temperature to save energy.
Change HVAC filters – Clean air filters can decrease an air conditioner’s energy consumption by 5 to 15% and help them run more efficiently.
Reinforce door and window weather stripping – Properly sealed windows and doors keep cool air from escaping and block hot air from entering the home.
Install window shades – Install, update or adapt curtains or blinds: Choose curtains with pale linings in rooms that get a lot of sun to help reflect heat.
Install ceiling fans – Consider battery-operated units in case of power outages. Be sure ceiling fans are moving counterclockwise, so they push air down in a column. Remember these won’t help when indoor temperatures start to exceed 80°F.
Add insulation – Roofs and walls need insulation the most because they’re the primary heat-absorbing surfaces.
Check appliances – Make sure refrigerators, freezers, fans and air conditioners work properly.
Consider external awnings – Shields including awnings, blinds, shutters and shade cloths prevent sun from shining through windows.
Plant trees – While they will take time to grow, planting trees now will allow them to provide considerable shade, especially if placed in the west and southern exposure of a residence.
Add air conditioning – Service existing air conditioning systems. If you don’t have central AC (and don’t plan to install), buy window or portable AC units.
Prepare for emergencies
Stock up on food, water and medications – Keep a two-week supply on hand for the household. Include dehydrated food, pantry items and canned goods. Stock bottled water or keep large jugs filled in case of water shortages. Store at least one gallon per person, per day.
Prioritize personal cooling – Buy personal cool packs for the fridge or freezer. Purchase spray bottles for misting.
Prepare to leave home – In the event of power outages or extreme heat warnings, keep a list on hand of local cooling centers, malls and public spaces with air conditioning.
Take care of pets – Don’t forget about pets during weather events! Like people, animals are vulnerable to extreme heat. Keep a supply of food and medications on hand. The Humane Society has developed guidelines to keep furry friends safe.
Understand health and heat risks
The health of an older adult can be affected during a heat wave, especially for those with existing medical conditions. To prepare loved ones for future heat waves:
- Get advice from a physician whether a medical condition will be affected by extreme heat.
- Talk to a physician about how much water to drink in hot weather.
- Make a list of physicians, friends and emergency telephone numbers.
- Keep a two-week supply of medications on hand to prepare for possible power outages.
- If your senior is taking regular medications, talk to a pharmacist about how medications could affect health in extreme heat. It’s important to remember that medications can become less effective or occasionally toxic when overheated.
Most medications need to be stored at 59 to 77 F. Talk to a physician or pharmacist if uncertain about correct storage temperatures.
“Heat-related illness and death are highly preventable, whether for individuals or entire communities,” said Shandas. “The key is taking proven actions now to reduce health impacts in the future.”