High temperatures kill—but no one takes them seriously

Heat causes more deaths than all other natural disasters combined

Make sure your high-risk patients don’t slip through the cracks.

Hot weather claims more American lives than all other natural disasters combined—and the death toll is expected to rise as the climate changes—but experts say not enough attention is being paid to the issue, Jane Brody writes in the New York Times "Well" blog.

How serious is the problem?

On average, excessive heat is responsible for 117 deaths each year, and another 1,800 people die annually from illnesses made worse by heat. Heat illnesses are more likely to occur several days into a heat wave, as combined effects take a toll on the body.

However, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that the true death toll is much higher. It predicts that extreme heat could kill more than 150,000 Americans by the end of the century in the 40 largest U.S. cities. According to NRDC, an increase in carbon pollution could lead to more "dangerously hot" summer days and cause more heat deaths.

Record-breaking heat sends more patients to hospitals

A serious problem often ignored, experts say

Despite the number of deaths, experts say the problem is largely ignored.

Christopher Colwell, director of emergency medicine at Denver Health Medical Center, says, "As common as the problem is, it's not common enough to grab people's attention until it hits close to home." Colwell says that people with the highest risks from heat are young children, elderly individuals, and athletes who practice and play in harsh temperatures.

High temperatures pack EDs with patients

In 2001, professional football player Korey Stringer died of a heatstroke after a summer football practice. In the six years leading up to Stringer's death, 19 high school and college athletes also died of heatstroke, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina.

Colwell says, "Many coaches have held practices in the heat for years and no one died, so they think a bigger deal is being made of the problem than it really is," noting that often players sidelined for heat exhaustion are quickly sent back on the field after just a brief rest.

A big problem for elderly Americans

According to Brody, the heat-related deaths of young athletes often get significant media coverage, but senior citizens are more likely to experience duress or death from heat because the body's ability to cool itself declines as people age. Moreover, elderly individuals are less able to physically leave an overheated space.

In addition, older Americans are more likely to be dehydrated and some medications they take—such as beta blockers and antichlorinergics—could increase their susceptibility to heat stress.

Study: Rural Americans are more likely to be obese than city dwellers

People who live in cities also face an increased risk for developing heat illness because tall buildings, concrete surfaces, and minimal shade trap heat (Brody, "Well," New York Times, 6/23).

3 steps to prioritize population health interventions

Explore three steps you can take to establish each patient’s current and future risk level, the root causes of the patient’s health risks, and which interventions would make the biggest impact.


Next in the Daily Briefing

Daily roundup: June 26, 2014

Read now