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Climate Change and Older Adults: Planning Ahead to Protect Your Health

Your 1+1 Team
July 11, 2023


Climate change poses significant challenges, affecting various aspects of our lives, including our health and well-being. Within the population, older adults are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to a range of factors such as physical limitations, cognitive impairments, and dependence on caregivers and medical systems. From extreme heat to climate-related disasters and air pollution, older adults face unique risks that require careful attention and proactive measures. It is crucial to understand the specific ways in which climate change impacts older adults and the steps that can be taken to mitigate these effects. By being informed, prepared, and supported, older adults can protect their health in the face of a changing climate.

In what ways are older adults uniquely susceptible to the effects of climate change?

Climate change poses a threat to everyone’s access to a safe and livable environment with clean air, water, food, and sufficient housing. However, aging adults especially are particularly at risk when it comes to the impacts of climate change.

Here are some specific factors that make it more challenging for seniors to prepare for, respond to, or survive climate change events:

  • Complex medical conditions: Older adults often have medical conditions that affect their physical, sensory, and cognitive abilities, making it harder for them to care for themselves and respond effectively to climate-related disasters.
  • Dependence on caregivers and medical systems: Older adults may rely on caregivers and medical services which can become inaccessible during climate disasters, leaving them more vulnerable.
  • Aging processes: Normal aging processes result in reduced muscle mass and body tone, which can limit the agility and mobility of older adults, making it harder for them to navigate and cope with climate-related challenges.
  • Cognitive impairments: Older adults may experience varying degrees of cognitive impairments, including mild to severe dementia, which can deter their ability to assess risks, plan responses, and engage in protective behaviors during climate emergencies.
  • Dependence on medications and life-sustaining equipment: Older adults often depend on medications and life-sustaining equipment. However, these resources may become unavailable or require power supplies that may not be readily accessible in temporary shelters or during climate-related disruptions.
  • Social determinants of health: Factors like economic security and substandard housing, known as “social determinants of health,” can worsen the impact of climate-induced disasters on older adults. These factors act as “threat multipliers,” expanding the negative consequences seniors face.

In what ways are older adults actively contributing to addressing climate change?

Despite dealing with an additional burden from climate change, older adults are also playing a significant role in tackling the issue. As a population, they possess considerable resources and serve as a motivated and engaged group of climate activists who are actively working to combat the climate crisis.

Here are a few examples:

  • Climate leader Bill McKibben has recently founded the organization Third Act which focuses on individuals over 60 years old. This group consists of experienced Americans who are determined to make positive changes in the world.
  • The podcast “Cooling Solutions—Old Docs Take New Patients: The Climate” highlights retired physicians who have chosen climate work as a second career. These individuals are using their expertise to contribute to climate solutions.

What are climate-related disasters, and how can they affect older adults?

Climate-related disasters are sudden events such as severe storms, floods, and wildfires. Older adults, in particular, face significant threats from these disasters. Their ability to evacuate to safe areas and protect themselves from injuries during such events are at risk to be compromised. They may rely on others for assistance and rescue.

Climate disasters also present specific challenges for certain older adults. For example, temporary shelters can be overwhelming, crowded, and located in unfamiliar public spaces. These chaotic environments can be disorienting and confusing, especially for aging adults with existing cognitive difficulties. Such circumstances can further strain those who are already barely managing, leading to a decline in their physical and mental health.

How does extreme heat affect older adults, and how can we assist?

Extreme heat is the most lethal weather-related phenomenon, causing approximately 12,000 deaths annually in the United States. Older adults, specifically those over the age of 60, account for around 80% of these heat-related fatalities. However, it is important to note that the actual number of heat-related deaths may be higher than reported, as the contribution of heat to causes of death is not consistently recorded.

Older individuals are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat due to age-related limitations in regulating core body temperature. The combination of heat and dehydration poses physical stress, especially for those with chronic medical conditions. The declining efficiency of cardiovascular function reduces the body’s ability to cool down through sweating, which is its primary defense against overheating. Additionally, medications used to manage chronic illnesses can further affect the body’s ability to maintain a cool temperature.

Socioeconomic factors such as poverty and race also contribute to vulnerability. Residents of low-income neighborhoods, often people of color, face additional risks due to crowded substandard housing, the urban heat island effect leading to higher temperatures and limited access to air-conditioning. These factors act as “multipliers” of risk in these communities.

Regularly checking in on isolated older adults can be a simple yet powerful way to assist family members and neighbors in coping with extreme heat. Distributing survival guides for dealing with extreme heat, such as those prepared by the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, can help older adults prepare for inevitable periods of high temperatures.

For more infographics and fact sheets, visit the website:

How can one prepare for the common health impacts of climate change?

While older adults are more at risk to the consequences of climate change, proactive planning can help protect them from some of the severe outcomes. Consider the following measures to safeguard your loved one against the effects of air pollution:

  • Stay informed: Stay updated on local air quality conditions by subscribing to air quality alerts on your phone, following local news sources, or checking the air quality index at airnow.gov.
  • Minimize exposure: When air quality is poor, try to stay indoors with windows closed. Consider using portable air filtration devices to improve indoor air quality. It is also advisable to maintain an adequate supply of medications and food to reduce the need for outdoor trips.
  • Protective measures: If you must venture outside during days with low air quality, wearing an N95 face mask can provide added protection against harmful pollutants.
  • Address extreme heat: During periods of extreme heat, air pollution tends to increase. It is crucial to have a plan in place to cool your living space adequately. If your home lacks proper cooling options, identify local cooling centers available in government-run senior centers, community centers, parks, recreation sites, and public buildings like libraries. This way, you can access a cooler environment and reduce health risks associated with hot temperatures.

The well-being of older adults in the face of climate change

Despite the challenges they face, older adults are demonstrating resilience and actively engaging in efforts to address climate change. Their experience, resources, and determination are invaluable in tackling this global crisis. However, society needs to provide support and implement measures to safeguard the well-being of older adults in the face of climate change. By recognizing and addressing the specific vulnerabilities and needs of older adults, we can work together to create a more climate-resilient and inclusive future for all generations.

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