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When you think of climate change, you might think of melting ice shelves. Heat waves. Shrinking habitat for animals and plants. You might not think of respiratory disease. Cardiac arrest. Tropical viruses.
But scientists and government agencies are beginning to report new information about ways in which the environmental damage humans have caused could damage human health. And the elderly—who already face a greater risk of certain health problems—are particularly vulnerable. Kathy Sykes directs the Environmental Protection Agency’s Aging Initiative—a relatively new effort for the EPA. She says older people are more likely to have chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease.
“Air pollution can exacerbate those conditions and lead to premature death, trips to the hospital, and lots more medications.”
When it comes to environmental health, the EPA first focused on children. But more recently the agency realized another vulnerable population—seniors—would be disproportionately affected as well. And that demographic wave is about to crest. Kentucky’s Department of Aging estimates that the number of people 60 and older in Jefferson County will make up more than a quarter of the total population by the year 2030. Are we ready for the public health challenge?
“A large majority of the public health directors we spoke with felt that they did in fact lack the resources, the staff, the funding, and the expertise to be fully prepared.”
Environmental Defense Fund’s Cathy Malina helped conduct this first-of-its-kind survey of public health departments’ readiness for climate change. The issue is just now grabbing more of the spotlight on capitol hill. And scientists are also charting new territory to find answers to questions about how– precisely –environmental forces might make us sick. University of Louisville doctor Aruni Bhatnagar is pioneering the new field of environmental cardiology. He describes a Harvard study of six major US cities in which researchers found, not surprisingly, that the cities with the highest levels of pollution had the lowest life expectancy.
“What was a surprising outcome was in the subsequent studies, and which showed that about 70 to 80 percent of these deaths were cardiac deaths. That was totally unanticipated, because we had no understanding, leave alone a mechanism, that could link exposure to pollutants to heart disease or has ever been done before.”
He says it’s well known that older people are more susceptible to pollution. Add to that the fact that climate change could intensify pollution concentrations. And that increased temperatures fuel the creation of ground level ozone, which comes from engine exhaust. So Bhatnagar and his colleagues are investigating the effects of a family of chemicals found in car exhaust and air pollution on heart conditions.
We may not be able to alter the basic facts of a changing climate and the compounding effects of pollution. And we can’t stop the aging process—yet. But the elderly don’t necessarily have to look forward to pure doom and gloom. EPA Aging Initiative head Kathy Sykes says, for one thing, we can design communities that are healthier. Pedestrian-friendly communities with fewer cars that encourage a healthier lifestyle.
“And I think this really is the wave of the future. I think it’s being understood more and more that personal behaviors are important, but how we can engineer back into people’s lives physical activity, walking places, will have a huge health impact.”
That kind of planning could not only give seniors more quality years; it could also ease the climate change burden for the next generation.