Ella Jackman (Project Coordinator & Research Assistant), Mehak Oberai (Senior Research Assistant), Ethos (Extreme Heat and Older Persons) Project, and Associate Professor Shannon Rutherford, Griffith University
Global temperatures have increased and are expected to continue increasing, due to the ongoing consequences of climate change. This warming will have unprecedented harms on our health, as extreme weather events become more frequent and intense. Climate change is a reality now, and we must urgently adapt.
Living in Australia, we are not strangers to weather extremes, with floods and bushfires being relatively commonplace. However, with increasing intensity and frequency of these events, health harms are likely to be unparalleled. Indeed, we have already seen first-hand the damage these hazards can cause, with 2010-2011’s La Nina cycle flooding 75% of Queensland, taking 33 lives and 28,000 homes. Conversely, exceptionally hot and dry conditions during 2019-2020’s El Nino that burnt over 24 million hectares of land, resulted in over 400 fatalities and the hospitalisation of 3,000 people for prolonged smoke exposure.
Uncontrolled, sky-scraping amber flames engulfing our country’s iconic landscape left a harrowing memory for many of us during that time yet searing hot temperatures which dominated the months before are largely forgotten. Though heat is Australia’s most deadly disaster, and many of these deaths are preventable, an awareness of heat’s health harm is largely unknown among Australians.
As we brace ourselves for another El Nino cycle, it is crucial to prepare our communities, particularly vulnerable groups such as older people. Those aged over 65, living alone, or experiencing certain medical conditions are more susceptible to heat health impacts. Their age, alongside potentially having heat sensitive conditions effecting cardiovascular, metabolic or renal systems, increase their vulnerability, and factors related to social isolation, cooling options and economic status can exacerbate their risk. Cooling and income are especially pertinent as this group may be more reluctant to use air conditioning as the cost-of-living skyrockets.
In Queensland, extreme heatwaves will be particularly damaging for older populations. From 2010-2019, a 5% rise in all-cause mortality was observed during heat events, unsurprisingly, increasing demands on health care services. Though over 65s are a key group presenting at the emergency department during heatwaves, there is a lack of research around heat health awareness among older Queenslanders.
Recent findings from Griffith University’s Ethos Project (Extreme Heat and Older Persons), revealed concerning statistics around how Queenslanders over 65 respond to heatwaves and hot weather. The statewide survey of 547 older Queenslanders demonstrated that a staggering 78% could not recall ever being told by a health professional that they were at a higher risk for heat health harms, despite 70% having at least one heat sensitive health condition. Even more shocking, 35% did not consider themselves personally vulnerable to heatwaves, despite feeling that heatwaves were a threat to Australians.
As summers get hotter, we must take action to prepare our communities. The Ethos survey results, coupled with a looming El Nino forecast , highlights the need for immediate heat preparedness, especially for older Queenslanders. Knowing the risks, staying informed of weather forecasts, increasing fluids, rescheduling outdoor activities, keeping our living areas cool, and checking in on older friends and family during hot days, are essential to prevent unnecessary heat-related consequences.
The Bureau’s ENSO Outlook remains at El Niño Alert in the latest Climate Driver Update. While tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures are exceeding El Niño thresholds, a confirmed shift in the tropical Pacific atmosphere has not been observed.
— Bureau of Meteorology, Australia (@BOM_au) August 15, 2023
These survey results are a resounding call to action, urging healthcare workers, particularly those working with the more at-risk to heat groups, to prioritise heat health awareness and disseminate crucial, lifesaving information. It’s time to work together and spread the message about heat-protective behaviours, ensuring our communities are adapted to face the escalating challenges of climate change. By embracing proactive measures and safeguarding our most vulnerable, we can forge a safer and healthier future amid rising temperatures.
Ethos is a multidisciplinary research project developing an in-home early warning system for older people during extreme heat. If you would like to learn more about this Griffith University-based work, visit www.climate-ethos.com or email the team via firstname.lastname@example.org
Image: Craig Manners/Unsplash