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Older people at increasing risk from heatwaves caused by climate change

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Climate change is putting pensioners in the UK and Europe at increasing risk of suffering from severe health problems such as heat stroke, health experts have warned.

In its annual report on climate change, medical journal The Lancet said that populations aged 65 years and older are “particularly vulnerable” to the health effects of climate change, especially to extremes of heat.

It found that between 1990 and 2018, populations in every region have become more vulnerable to heat and heatwaves, with Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean remaining “the most vulnerable”.

In 2018, those aged over 65 experienced 220 million heatwave exposures globally, breaking the previous record of 209 million set in 2015.

Heat extremes cause heat stress, heat stroke, acute damage to kidneys, exacerbate congestive heart failure and increase the risk of violence and suicide, the experts said.

Furthermore, these incidents increase pressure on local healthcare systems which are themselves large contributors of greenhouse-gas emissions, thereby exacerbating climate change further.

Global healthcare was found to be responsible for approximately 2250 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2016, or 4·6 per cent of total global emissions.

The report also said that children are particularly at risk from air pollution, mostly caused by transport and burning coal, which stunts their lung development and has lifelong impacts on physical and mental health.

The 2019 Lancet Countdown on Health And Climate Change report represents the findings and consensus of 35 leading academic institutions and UN agencies from every continent. In particular it tracks the impacts of rising temperatures, resilience, and economics.

It finds climate change is already damaging the health of the world’s children and threatens them throughout their lives unless action is taken to limit temperature rises to well below 2°C in line with global commitments.

The UK saw heatwaves in 2018 which resulted in 863 excess deaths in England alone, and record high temperatures in 2019, putting older people who are increasingly suffering ill health at a growing risk.

Climate change is also thought to be partially responsible for what was dubbed the “Beast from the East”, a dramatic cold spell experienced by the UK in February 2018 that led to the deaths of 16 people including children and pensioners.

The UK faces increasing threats to crop production, and the spread of infectious diseases as temperatures rise - with the presence of tick-borne encephalitis virus confirmed in the UK for the first time.

Dr Nicholas Watts, executive director, Lancet Countdown, said: “When you look at the technology available, the economics of the issue, the finance available, the technical questions, you realise that (depending on) which of these two pathways we pick, climate change is an enormous threat to public health or the response to climate change is the greatest public health opportunity we have in front of us.

“Which one of those pathways we pick is entirely a political question.”

Prof Robinson said there were many things the UK could do to improve the health of the population and tackle climate emissions, starting with reducing air pollution.

“Then changing to a more plant-based diet, a balanced diet which can easily include meat products but is a more balanced plant-based diet,” she said.

“And producing an environment where people can undertake active transport without threatening their health, so safer roads, less pollution on the roads, more opportunities for cycling, much more integrated transport.

“All countries need to take action, and in particular high-income countries, and the actions we are proposing make sense for our health and make sense economically.”

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