Extreme heat may increase cognitive decline in these people

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In light of July 2023 being the hottest month ever recorded and cities like Phoenix grappling with prolonged heatwaves, new research indicates that continuous exposure to extreme heat can exacerbate cognitive decline, especially among Black older adults and those residing in impoverished neighborhoods.

The study, led by Eunyoung Choi from the NYU School of Global Public Health, suggests that the adverse impact of sustained heat on cognitive health isn’t uniform across the population.

Annually in the U.S., heat is responsible for more deaths than hurricanes, tornadoes, and lightning combined. Especially susceptible are young children and the elderly, who risk conditions such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion.

Previous studies have analyzed the short-term effects of heat on cognitive function.

However, this study delves into the prolonged consequences.

Virginia Chang, the study’s senior author, highlights that extended exposure to intense heat can initiate a series of detrimental events in the brain, including cellular damage and inflammation, which could wear out an individual’s cognitive reserve.

The team examined data from about 9,500 U.S. adults aged 52 and above from 2006-2018.

This data was sourced from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research’s Health and Retirement Study.

The study cross-referenced participants’ cognitive function with their cumulative exposure to extreme heat over 12 years, using temperature data from the CDC.

The results showed that those in impoverished neighborhoods, with high exposure to heat, faced faster cognitive decline than their counterparts in affluent areas.

Haena Lee, the study’s co-first author, points to the lack of resources in disadvantaged neighborhoods, such as cooling centers and air conditioning, as potential reasons.

Other factors, like chronic stress and reduced access to cognitive health services, could also play a role.

The research observed faster cognitive decline due to heat among Black older adults when compared to white or Hispanic older adults.

Structural racism, segregation, and other discriminatory practices may have had long-term effects on the cognitive reserves of Black older adults, explains Chang.

Given these findings, the research team emphasizes the necessity for local governments and health officials to craft policies that:

  • Identify those at high risk from extreme heat.
  • Offer targeted support to these communities.
  • Enhance communication with at-risk groups.

Choi stressed the significance of these findings by noting the compound disadvantages faced by vulnerable populations during high temperatures.

With climate change worsening, it’s crucial to bolster support for at-risk communities to cultivate resilience against the mounting public health threat of extreme heat.

If you care about brain health, please read studies about why some older people are less likely to have Alzheimer’s disease, and this daily habit could help treat Alzheimer’s disease.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies about a common food that may reduce vascular disease in the brain, and results showing these antioxidants could help reduce the risk of dementia.

The study was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

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