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October 30, 2023

Penn scientists predict cardiovascular deaths from extreme heat will spike as the planet warms

The elderly and Black adults would suffer the most, according to the study. The researchers say 'heat action' plans are needed to protect people from elevated heart risks

Climate change could dramatically increase cardiovascular deaths tied to extreme heat in the coming years, according to new research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania.

The study used recent data to predict the number of cardiovascular deaths associated with extreme heat in the U.S. from 2036 to 2065. Its researchers concluded that those deaths could climb by 162% or even 233% — and that the numbers would be even worse for certain groups, particularly Black adults and the elderly.

The projections were based on cardiovascular deaths and "extreme heat days" – when the max heat index meets or exceeds 90 degrees – from 2008 to 2019 across the U.S. Adding in presumed greenhouse gas emission increases, the scientists then estimated potential future deaths. 

While extreme heat was associated with 1,651 annual cardiovascular deaths between 2008 and 2019, the researchers found it would be linked to 4,320 such deaths with moderate greenhouse gas emission increases, or 5,491 with large increases, by midcentury. The projected increase in death among Black adults was 3.5 times higher than among white adults, and 2.5 times higher among the elderly than younger Americans.

The study was conducted by four researchers at Penn's Perelman School of Medicine.

"As global temperatures rise, analyzing how demographic and environmental trends are connected is necessary for accurate forecasts of how extreme heat events will impact the cardiovascular health of U.S. adults in the coming decades," said Dr. Sameed Khatana, assistant professor of cardiovascular medicine at Penn. "This is a health equity issue and without steps to mitigate its impacts, extreme heat may widen the preexisting cardiovascular health disparities that already exist between communities in the United States."

Extreme heat has been linked to numerous health issues, including exhaustion, urinary tract infections and childbirth complications. But it is especially taxing on the heart. When the body sweats and loses fluids, it becomes harder to carry out normal functions, straining the cardiovascular system. The heart also may have to pump harder and faster to reroute blood flow on sweltering days. These conditions can lead to a stroke or heart attack, especially if particulate matter is already in the air. A study published this summer found that extreme heat coupled with air pollution can double the risk of dying from a heart attack.

To blunt the impact of extreme heat, the Penn scientists recommended identifying high-risk communities, such as those suffering from the urban heat island effect, and developing "heat action plans" to protect residents from heart risks. Increasing tree canopy, for instance, could cool down some historically underserved neighborhoods.

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