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Misc. News : Non-f.ood Things Last Updated: Nov 12th, 2006 - 20:38:00

Killer Heat Waves Do Discriminate
Aug 16, 2006, 09:25

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Elderly who live in threatening, rundown areas most vulnerable, study suggests

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 16 (HealthDay News) -- It's no secret that elderly people often die in heat waves because they lack air conditioning and no one checks on them. Now, new research provides more evidence that those seniors who live in run-down neighborhoods are at highest risk when the temperatures really rise.

The researchers studied a killer heat wave in Chicago 11 years ago, and contend that elderly people in such neighborhoods are especially isolated, unable to find much in the way of relief from heat and unwilling to go outside in the first place because they fear for their safety.

The neighborhoods in Chicago lacked "businesses that tended to draw older people out" of their homes and into areas that might offer relief, such as air conditioning, said study co-author Christopher Browning, associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

The study findings took on added urgency with the recent national heat wave that killed an estimated 200 people nationwide, including at least 132 in California, 21 in Chicago, 20 in New York City, 12 in Missouri and 10 in Oklahoma. At least half of the victims of the triple-digit temperatures were elderly.

Browning and colleagues examined who died and where during a July 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed almost 800 people. The study, which relies on statistics instead of interviews with elderly people, was published in the August issue of the American Sociological Review.

The researchers wanted to test the theories of sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who wrote a 2002 book about why the Chicago heat wave was so deadly. Klinenberg argued that elderly people were more vulnerable in certain kinds of neighborhoods, not simply ones that were poor.

In the new study, the researchers examined data on where the victims lived and what their neighborhoods were like. "We were interested in trying to figure out how there were differences across neighborhoods," Browning said. "Obviously, not all poor neighborhoods had problems."

The researchers found what they called a significant link between run-down neighborhoods and heat wave death rates.

"Those that had concentrations of liquor stores, bars and youth-oriented businesses, and buildings in poor condition, had higher heat mortality," Browning said.

The researchers speculated that the types of businesses in these neighborhoods were less likely to draw elderly people out of their stifling homes during the heat wave, when temperatures topped 100 degrees for several days. Also, the businesses could have created an atmosphere that "provoked fear," providing another reason for the elderly to stay inside, Browning said.

By contrast, "big-box" retailers like Walgreens or Target could have given the elderly people a place to go to get cool, said study co-author Kathleen A. Cagney, an assistant professor with the University of Chicago's Department of Health Studies.

The researchers also found evidence that neighborhoods that had close ties among residents still weren't able to stave off the deadly effects of the heat wave.

Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, said the new study findings appear to be valid and suggest a message about who survives and who doesn't after disasters like Hurricane Katrina: "It's not that they are vulnerable because of some moral failures," he said.

Klinenberg added, "The vulnerability is more about place than it is about race."

The good news: The study authors said Chicago is doing a better job of preventing deaths during heat waves by providing places for people to find air conditioning and encouraging residents to check on neighbors.

Last month, the federal government released a report that detailed the heavy toll of heat-related deaths between 1999 and 2003. Most of those deaths, often seen among low-income persons, could have been avoided, officials said.

"Exposure to excessive heat can cause serious illness. It is one of the major weather-related causes of death," said report author George Luber, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Every one of those deaths is preventable if folks are aware of some on the preventive measures."

Taking into account all possible deaths that could be heat-related from 1999 to 2003, heat-related deaths increased by 54 percent, suggesting that the number of heat-related deaths had previously been underestimated, the report said.

During this period, a total of 3,442 deaths resulting from exposure to extreme heat were reported, or about 688 deaths a year. Most of the deaths, 66 percent, were among men.

Of the 3,401 victims for whom age information was available, 7 percent were under 15 years old, 53 percent were aged 15 to 64 years, and 40 percent were older than 65. The highest death tolls were in Arizona, followed by Nevada and Missouri.

More information

The American Geriatric Society can tell you more about beating the heat.

SOURCES: Christopher Browning, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology, Ohio State University, Columbus; Kathleen A. Cagney, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Health Studies, University of Chicago; Eric Klinenberg, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology, New York University, and author, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago; August 2006, American Sociological Review

Last Updated: Aug. 16, 2006

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