Extreme heat and cold are leading to increasing death rates from cardiovascular disease among the elderly, with high temperatures threatening elderly men in the Taipei area, while low temperatures pose a risk for the elderly in the south, a scientific study showed.
In a paper published in the Taiwan Journal of Public Health, Chung Yuan Christian University’s Department of Bioenvironmental Engineering assistant professor Wang Yu-chun (王玉純) and National Taiwan University’s College of Public Health professor Lin Yu-kai (林于凱) showed how extreme weather affected the death rate among the elderly, comparing weather data from 1994 and 2008 with the causes of death among the elderly during the same period.
Wang said when average daily temperature was between 26°C and 28°C, the death rate among the elderly was at its lowest.
Once average daily temperatures in the Taipei area hit 30°C, the incidence of death within seven days from cardiovascular disease increased 5 percent among the elderly for every degree the temperature rose.
Wang added that the impact of extreme weather conditions on the elderly might not be immediate and could be delayed by a few days.
The research also showed that the effects of high temperatures were less noticeable among the elderly in Greater Taichung and Greater Kaohsiung.
However, cold fronts and low temperatures led to an increase in deaths among the elderly in Greater Kaohsiung.
Once the daily average temperatures dropped to 18°C in Greater Kaohsiung, the risk of death from cardiovascular disease in the following 21 days rose 9 percent for every 1°C drop in temperature, the research showed. For Taipei and Greater Taichung, the incidence of death rose 4 percent for every degree the temperature dropped below 18°C over a three-week period.
Chang Kuo-sung (張國頌), a visiting staff doctor in Mackay Memorial Hospital’s emergency room, said people’s ability to adapt to temperature fluctuations decreases with age, and that by the time the elderly realize it is too hot or too cold, it could already be too late.
Houses should always have a thermometer and the elderly should turn on their air conditioner when temperatures reach 30°C, Wang said, adding that if a house did not have an air conditioner, then it was important to have good air circulation and individuals should keep themselves well hydrated.
The elderly are easily dehydrated and can suffer heat stroke in hot weather, causing shock or arrhythmia, Chang said, adding that low temperatures can affect blood pressure and also cause arrhythmia, myocardial infarction or a stroke.
Wang called on government agencies to establish a warning system for heat waves and cold fronts, as well as taking measures to lower the risk of death for old patients and old people living alone.
Central Weather Bureau Director-General Shin Tzay-chyn (辛在勤) said the problem with establishing a heat wave and cold front warning system did not stem from lack of capacity at the bureau, but rather from an insufficient amount of medical data.
The bureau has asked the Department of Health to look into the matter to understand the relationship between high heat, sickness and death, Shin said, adding that the department said there was insufficient evidence supporting a direct correlation between the two.
Shin said the health department’s position undermined the calls for the establishment of a heat wave and cold front alarm system.