The UK is renowned for its changeable weather. Now, experts have warned that the annual number of deaths related to hot weather in the UK is expected to increase by up to 257% over the next 40 years. This is according to a study recently published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
The research team, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Public Health England, warns that elderly individuals will be most at risk, particularly those living in the South of England and the Midlands.
To reach their findings, the investigators analyzed the fluctuation of weather patterns and death rates in the UK between 1993 and 2006. This information was used to determine the link between temperature and mortality by age group and region.
Using predicted daily average temperatures from the British Atmospheric Data Center (BADC) for the years 2000-09, 2020-29, 2050-59 and 2080-89, and population growth estimates for these periods from the Office of National Statistics, the researchers estimated the future number of deaths likely to be caused by hot and cold temperatures.
Climate change 'will lead to increase in heat-related deaths'
From this, the investigators estimated that the risk of mortality as a result of hot and cold weather would significantly increase across all UK regions, particularly for elderly populations.
The number of cold days in the UK is expected to decrease by the mid-2080s, while the number of hot days is predicted to triple by this time.
The study indicated that without any interventions that allow the UK population to adapt to climate change, the annual number of deaths related to heat is expected to increase by up to 257% by the 2050s, from the current annual figure of 2,000 deaths.
The number of annual deaths related to cold temperatures is estimated to decrease by 2% by the 2050s, from the current annual figure of 41,000 deaths.
The investigators say that the death rate increases by 2.1% for every 1°C increase in temperature that is above the UK heat threshold, while a 2% increase in death rates is seen for every 1°C drop in temperature below the cold threshold.
The researchers found that individuals aged 85 and over are at the highest risk of increased mortality as a result of hot temperatures. The study authors say this may be due to UK population growth and the fact that there is an increasing number of elderly people in the population.
Commenting on the findings, the study authors say:
"Future changes in climate are likely to lead not only to an increase in heat-related deaths in the UK, but also to a proportionally smaller decrease in cold-related deaths.
The changing size and age structure of the population will contribute greatly to future burdens."
UK 'needs better adaptation to rising temperatures'
The researchers say their findings indicate that interventions are needed in order to help the UK population adapt to rising temperatures.
They say that air conditioning is likely to become more widely used, but that individuals who are struggling economically may not be able to afford the fuel costs associated with air conditioning.
Furthermore, they say that if power outages occur during hot weather, people who have become accustomed to air-conditioned environments may be more vulnerable.
"Passive cooling options (i.e. building orientation, shading, thermal insulation, choice of construction materials) implemented at the design stage of urban developments may be equally effective in reducing heat stress, and would be more environmentally sustainable," the researchers write.
When it comes to elderly populations, the investigators say that adopting better general health and well-being may help ease some of the burdens expected with future climate change.
Changes in household size and living patterns may also help reduce heat-related deaths among the elderly, the researchers say. They point to a 2003 heatwave in Paris, France, in which the majority of elderly individuals who died were living on their own and had limited social contact.
The UK is not likely to be alone when it comes to suffering the effects of climate change. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), more than 150,000 Americans could die by the end of the century as a result of the changing climate.
Last year, Medical News Today reported on an announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that warned Americans to prepare for extreme summer heat.