Finland: Last summer's heat wave increased the mortality of older people – prepare for hot weather in time
According to preliminary register data, the extended heat wave of last summer caused around 380 premature deaths. This information is based on an assessment by researchers at the National Institute for Health and Welfare.
Health hazards affect older people and those with long-term illness
Mortality was examined on a 24-day period in July and August during which temperatures were hot across Finland. The effects were focused on the age group of over 65-year-olds, in which daily mortality grew by on average 14 per cent during the heat wave compared to regular rates.
The effects were within the same range as a similar heat wave spanning over three weeks in July and August 2014. According to estimates, the hot weather of the summer of 2014 caused around 330 premature deaths.
“The health hazards of hot weather particularly affect older people and those with long-term illnesses. Risk factors include cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, mental and behavioural disorders, and diseases of the nervous system”, says Virpi Kollanus, a researcher at the National Institute for Health and Welfare.
Inpatient facilities should prepare – future increase in heat waves likely
Heat waves and related health hazards will probably increase as a result of the climate change and population ageing.
“During heat waves, there is a spike in mortality among residents in healthcare and social welfare inpatient facilities as well as the older people living at home. Particularly inpatient facilities should be better prepared for hot weather, as their population is vulnerable to the adverse effects of hot weather”, says Kollanus.
Improving the management of indoor temperatures at the facilities is key. Cooling air conditioner units or air source heat pumps can be installed if passive cooling methods are insufficient in reducing the rise of indoor temperatures.
“Inpatient facilities are advised to consider the risks related to a heat wave well before the start of the warm season. Every facility should draw up a plan that includes preparation measures and instructions for staff. The facilities should be able to cool at least some of their spaces if necessary”, Kollanus notes.
Measures are also needed for helping older people and those with a long-term illness living at home. The need for such measures is set to rise as the share of home care increases.
“Home care providers should visit their clients more frequently during prolonged heat waves. If the dwelling of an older person gets considerably hot, temporarily placing the person in an inpatient unit or with relatives might be a good alternative”, says Kollanus.
What about homes – how to prepare for hot weather?
It is important to aim at keeping living spaces cool during a heatwave. It is worth considering the measures that can be taken to cool down the dwelling before the weather gets hot.
“Covering sun-facing windows to prevent the sun from shining indoors during the day provides an effective approach for lowering indoor temperatures at home. You should only open windows and let the air in your home at evenings or nights, once the outdoor air has cooled”, Kollanus says.
Fans also provide relief if the indoor air is below 35 degrees. However, if the temperature gets above this limit, a fan will do more harm than good, as it adds to the heat load of the body.
If a dwelling gets hot very easily, those belonging to risk groups should consider installing a portable cooling unit or air source heat pump.
“People with a long-term illness are also advised to discuss with their doctor the potential effects of heat on their illness or medication used for treating it already before the start of the warm season”, Kollanus notes.
During prolonged hot weather, each one of us could also consider whether to help a loved one whose reduced functional ability may make it difficult for them to prepare for the hazards caused by a heat wave.