Dr. Bruce Lee of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health recently wrote an article for physicians on the effect of climate change on patients.
This column will focus on the health effects of climate change on older folks in particular.
Older people are at increased risk of respiratory problems, including chronic lung diseases, lung cancer and “the old man’s friend” pneumonia. Changes in air temperature, rain and carbon dioxide concentrations in air can lead to more ozone, pollen, mold spores, fine particles and chemicals that can irritate and potentially damage the lungs and airways.
What can seniors do to protect themselves? First, and most obviously, avoid exposure to all forms of smoke. Fortunately, in Charleston our sea breeze tends to keep our air quality good overall, but still pay attention to air quality reports and alerts and stay inside on bad air-quality days. If you develop new breathing problems that don’t resolve quickly, see your primary care practitioner.
Changes in our atmosphere as a result of climate change lead to decreased levels of ozone which allow more ultraviolet rays to get to our skin and eyes, increasing risk for skin cancers and cataracts. Seniors should be more consistent in protecting skin and eyes with sunscreen and protective lenses and having at least annual whole-body skin exams and vision check-ups.
Diseases of the heart and blood vessels increase with age but are also more likely to be manifest in periods of extreme (higher or lower) temperatures, poor air quality and stress from severe weather events. Aging amateurs should protect themselves from extremes of temperature and poor air quality whenever possible, whether it be by doing work or recreational activities at the most hospitable part of the day, or avoiding exertion altogether.
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke occur more frequently in very young and very old individuals. Rising temperatures associated with climate change increase risk of these severe heat-related illnesses. Seniors should pay attention to weather reports and heed advice to stay in air-conditioned environments when possible, especially during heat waves, when nighttime temperatures remain above 85. Light-color, loose-fitting clothing and a broad-brimmed hat should be worn if you must be out in the heat.
Foodborne illnesses may be increased due to changes in the number and strength of disease-causing microbes produced by higher temperatures and more rain. Aging amateurs should pay particular attention to foodborne illness risk, since dehydration is more likely in older patients with vomiting and/or diarrhea. Be alert for information from the CDC on foodborne illnesses and practice good food-safety techniques (frequent hand washing, avoiding cross-contamination of raw or potentially contaminated food, thorough cooking of food, etc.) just as everyone should.
Older folks are more likely to have more severe cases of many insect-borne diseases. These illnesses are a growing problem as climate change results in increases in temperature, humidity and rainfall. Malaria, dengue, Zika, Chagas disease, West Nile fever, Lyme and other tick-borne diseases are all on the rise around the world.
What can we do to protect ourselves? Prevention of infection is the key. Use insect repellent and protective clothing. A daily full-body “tick check” is important if you are outside in your yard or garden for long periods (even a few hours). Stay inside during prime biting times (usually around dawn and dusk). Get rid of anything that encourages standing water where mosquito larvae develop or high grasses that may provide habitat for ticks.
We’ve mentioned climate-related stress as well as heart and vascular disease, but those stresses also may affect our mental health. Small changes in temperature and precipitation can affect the way you feel.
Elders almost always have the advantage of previous experience with trying life experiences, but that doesn’t make us immune to them. Pay attention to your mental health. If things seem to be “getting to you,” seek out a listening ear, whether it be a counselor, minister, your family doctor or primary care practitioner.
Finally, quoting Dr. Lee, “We only know the tip of the iceberg (which may be melting, by the way) of what climate change may be doing to people’s bodies.”
So, encourage more research and less science denial. Encourage policies that reduce pollution and carbon emissions. Do everything you can as often as you can to reduce your own contribution to climate change.
Remember that old saying, “The life you save may be your own”? Well, here’s a twist on it: The planet you save will be for your great-grandchildren.