Heat waves in Europe are disastrous for the elderly and people with disabilities

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Thousands of people died as 21 countries across Europe suffered unusually high temperatures amid an unprecedented and prolonged but predictable heatwave last month. The elderly and those with underlying medical conditions, such as respiratory and cardiovascular disease, have been particularly affected. Data from Spain and Portugal show that most of those who died were over 65.

Previous data also shows the disproportionate impact of heat waves on older people. In 2021, 90% of heat-related deaths in the UK were in people aged 65 and over. Similarly, when France suffered its deadliest heatwave in 2003, most of the 15,000 people who died were elderly.

No data has yet been released on the number of people who died from the current heatwave who had a disability. But we know that heat is more likely to affect people with disabilities or with pre-existing conditions that limit the body’s ability to stay cool, including diabetes, traumatic spinal and brain injury, and cerebral palsy. People with psychosocial disorders (mental health disorders) are three times more likely to die from heat, in part because certain medications interfere with the body’s ability to regulate its temperature.

A recent scientific study calls Europe a “heatwave hotspot”, finding that the number of heatwaves has increased there faster than in other regions of the so-called “temperate zone”. Temperatures are expected to continue to rise and heat waves will be more frequent, with human-induced climate change being the main driver. The July heatwave saw temperatures reach over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the UK.

Despite being among the world’s largest emitters of the greenhouse gases driving the climate crisis, European governments have largely failed to help at-risk populations cope with the impacts of global warming. While some countries like Belgium and France have heat action plans that target at-risk populations like the elderly and people with disabilities, most European countries have inadequate plans to deal with the increase temperatures that lead to thousands of preventable deaths each year.

Governments need better plans to protect older people and people with disabilities from the increasingly common extreme heat. Officials must consult with these communities to ensure that the people best placed to plan and lead responses can help prevent further deaths.

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