Extreme weather and human-caused disasters may take an outsized toll on vulnerable populations, especially the elderly.
At the Trans-Federal Workshop on Extreme Events, Environmental Health, and the Elderly, top researchers joined representatives of elder groups and community organizations to focus on research, cultural impacts, and sustainable solutions to protecting health in extreme events.
Symma Finn, Ph.D., from the NIEHS Population Health Branch, and Intaek Hahn, Ph.D., from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), served as lead organizers for the June 13-14 event, which was held at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Finn and Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research were among the featured speakers.
Elderly are not monolithic
The health of subgroups of the elderly may be affected differently due to social factors. Vulnerable subpopulations include Native American, Asian, Hispanic, and African Americans in tribal communities and cities, as well as low-income individuals in remote and rural regions.
“Socioeconomic status, isolation, neighborhood characteristics, social support, and access to health care are all factors that increase risk for the elderly,” Collman told the audience.
Those factors may help explain why impacts on older adults are out of proportion to their numbers. “The biggest weather-related impacts are for people 85 and older,” Finn said.
Tapping into Native knowledge
Several presenters focused on elder populations among the 566 federally recognized Native American tribes. Lori Jervis, Ph.D., from the University of Oklahoma, explained that these communities are already struggling with the legacies of historical trauma.
“Elders play key roles in maintaining resilient communities in a changing climate,” she said. And yet, the perspectives of Native American elders are nearly absent from the literature on climate events. “Native cultures are place-based, which is really important when you want to know about weather and climate,” Jervis said. “Weather observations by Crow elders have been confirmed by scientific data.”
Older adults are susceptible to heat exposure for many reasons, according to Stefanie Sarnat, Sc.D., from Emory University. “The natural aging process and other factors decrease the ability to regulate internal body temperatures,” she explained.
In addition, the body adapts to temperatures that change gradually, so a sudden warm spring day can be more dangerous than a hot summer day, according to Joel Schwartz, Ph.D., from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Interventions need to be triggered at considerably lower temperatures earlier in the season, or late in September,” Schwartz said. “How we acclimate is not addressed by most climate models.”
He also enlightened the audience about varied ways heat may affect health. “Very few people who die when it gets very hot are dying from heat stroke,” he said. “More people die of heart attacks, or [other] things.”
Support systems affected
“The potential impacts affect not only the elderly themselves, but also huge populations of caregivers — families, institutions, health care facilities,” said Kimberly Thigpen Tart, J.D., of the NIEHS Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation, who moderated a panel.
The workshop helped create a common cause between those caregivers, and researchers and elder groups, according to NIEHS Senior Advisor for Public Health John Balbus, M.D. “The meeting helped deepen understanding not just about the vulnerability of older populations to heat stress and extreme weather events, but also about ways the experience and wisdom of older populations are being tapped to help build resilience in communities.”
Finn and Hahn organized the event with colleagues from NIEHS, the National Institute of Aging, the Indian Health Service, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary also participated.
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison)