Consequences of heat increase despite measures already taken
The study concludes that number of deaths that could be associated with heat have increased sharply. In the 1970s, this amounted to 78 deaths per year; in the decade 2000-2010, there were more than 300. The cantons of Geneva, Zurich and Basel, as well as Ticino, were most affected by this higher mortality rate. About two-thirds of the additional deaths caused by heat were among people over 80 years of age. "Our results suggest that the public health measures taken after the 2003 heat wave were effective, as the number of heat-related deaths decreased from 2000 to 2009, despite the extremely warm summers we experienced then," said Dr. Ana Vicedo Cabrera of the OCCR, last author of the study. "However, the heat-related burden on health remains significant - and more importantly, it is expected to increase due to climate change in the coming decades. So more needs to be done with sustainable public health measures to protect populations from the effects of climate change," she adds.
Aging exacerbates cold-related mortality
People in Switzerland are affected not only by the heat, but also by the cold - and to a much greater extent. Over the past 50 years, more than 5,200 people in Switzerland have died each year as a result of low temperatures. But from what exactly? "Unlike heat waves, where there are clearly evident health consequences, things are far more complex with cold," says Evan de Schrijver. Contributing factors include a higher rate of infectious diseases in winter, but also housing quality and access to health care. However, deaths associated with cold have decreased significantly over the period studied - probably because of better health care and rising socioeconomic status, which therefore means increased housing quality and heating. Still, while these factors have improved, leading to fewer cold-related deaths, this is offset by aging. "Aging amplifies the effect of climate change in the case of heat, while it cancels out improved conditions and potential adaptation to low temperatures in the case of cold," explains de Schrijver. "A main message of our study is therefore: cold-related mortality will continue in the coming decades despite rising temperatures because of the progressively aging population," de Schrijver adds.
Protecting older people from the effects of climate change
The new research results are relevant for the ways Switzerland adapts to climate change. "Protecting older people could be crucial," says Evan de Schrijver, "to mitigate the health impacts of a warming climate and strengthen the resilience of the population." That's because as we get progressively older, rising temperatures also have more and more of an impact on our health. The study found that the number of people who, because of their age, will potentially be affected by risks associated with heat waves will double by 2060, according to other studies. The combination of a warming climate and an aging population will tend to exacerbate the effects of heat. "So if we want to protect future generations from the threat of climate change, we should develop more ambitious adaptation strategies at the national and local level, such as more green spaces in cities to reduce heat," Schrijver believes.