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Cognitive Decline in Older Adults Linked to Extreme Heat Exposure

Publication Date: 9/14/2023 8:00 AM

Around the world, climate change is resulting in extremely hot days. A neurologist at Rambam Health Care Campus (Rambam), in Haifa, Israel, provides a medical perspective on recent research that looked at the impact of extreme heat in certain adult populations.

Professor David Tanne. Photography: Rambam HCC.Professor David Tanne. Photography: Rambam HCC.

A 12-year study on the effects of extreme heat exposure in older adults was recently published in the Journal of Community Epidemiology and Health. Led by Professor Virginia Chang, from the New York University School of Global Public Health, the study examined the relationship between cognitive decline and heat exposure, since, with global warming, exposure to extreme heat has become a growing public health concern. Chang and colleagues found that cumulative exposure to extreme heat was indeed associated with faster cognitive decline in residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods but not in residents of more affluent neighborhoods who have greater access to cooling technologies.

Professor David Tanne, director of both the Stroke and Cognition Institute and the Teaching Center for Stroke at Rambam, and chairman of the Israel Neurological Association, explains, “Medical literature describes how extreme heat increases the risk of cognitive impairment and even stroke. Cognitive decline, similar to Alzheimer’s disease, resulting from extreme heat exposure, has already been observed in laboratory rats.”

When external temperatures are high, sleep quality, critical for healthy body system functions and brain structure, is negatively affected. Furthermore, exposure to extreme heat has been shown to affect mortality and physical health, but little is known about its long-term consequences in the older population.

“Cognitive decline may not manifest immediately, but repeated or prolonged exposures to extreme heat may be harmful,” explains Professor Chang. “Cumulative exposure to extreme heat can trigger a chain of events in the brain, all of which can exhaust one’s cognitive reserve.”

Professor Tanne clarifies, “Heat stroke and dehydration are two effects of exposure to extreme heat, but more research on the long-term effects of such exposure is required.” He recommends staying indoors and making use of cooling technologies wherever possible, however, a strong response is essential. He concludes, “We must all do our utmost to protect the planet and fight global warming.”

Climate change is playing a significant role in every part of our lives – from our physical environment to our physical health. Hopefully, ongoing research will provide more answers and point to potential solutions.

This article is based on one that first appeared on the YNet news website.