Climate Change and Older Americans

State of the Science

Janet L. Gamble; Bradford J. Hurley; Peter A. Schultz; Wendy S. Jaglom; Nisha Krishnan; Melinda Harris

Disclosures

Environ Health Perspect. 2013;121(1):15-22. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Background: Older adults make up 13% of the U.S. population, but are projected to account for 20% by 2040. Coinciding with this demographic shift, the rate of climate change is accelerating, bringing rising temperatures; increased risk of floods, droughts, and wildfires; stronger tropical storms and hurricanes; rising sea levels; and other climate-related hazards. Older Americans are expected to be located in places that may be relatively more affected by climate change, including coastal zones and large metropolitan areas.

Objective: The objective of this review is to assess the vulnerability of older Americans to climate change and to identify opportunities for adaptation.

Methods: We performed an extensive literature survey and summarized key findings related to demographics; climate stressors relevant to older adults; factors contributing to exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity; and adaptation strategies.

Discussion: A range of physiological and socioeconomic factors make older adults especially sensitive to and/or at risk for exposure to heat waves and other extreme weather events (e.g., hurricanes, floods, droughts), poor air quality, and infectious diseases. Climate change may increase the frequency or severity of these events.

Conclusions: Older Americans are likely to be especially vulnerable to stressors associated with climate change. Although a growing body of evidence reports the adverse effects of heat on the health of older adults, research gaps remain for other climate-related risks. We need additional study of the vulnerability of older adults and the interplay of vulnerability, resilience, and adaptive responses to projected climate stressors.

Introduction

Older adults (i.e., individuals ≥ 65 years of age) are consistently identified as a population that is especially vulnerable to climate change stressors [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007; U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) 2008; U.S. Global Change Research Program (GCRP) 2009]. A number of physiological, psychological, and socioeconomic factors contribute to this vulnerability, including the generally higher prevalence of certain diseases, medical conditions, and functional limitations among older adults; their higher sensitivity to extreme heat; their increased social isolation; and their financial status. The goal of this review is to summarize the current state of the science regarding the impacts of climate change on older adults in the United States, including key climate stressors; factors influencing the sensitivity, exposure, and adaptive capacity of older Americans to climate stressors; and measures that could be undertaken to reduce the vulnerability and enhance the resilience of older Americans to climate change. In this review, "sensitivity" refers to an individual's or subpopulation's responsiveness, primarily for biological reasons, to a given exposure. "Vulnerability" refers to the degree to which the ability of individuals or populations to cope with climate stressors is impaired. For our purposes, vulnerability is a function of sensitivity, exposure, and adaptive capacity.

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