El Nino officially declared: What does it mean for older Australians?

Mehak Oberai, Dr Shannon Rutherford; Dr Steven Baker, Dr Jeni Warburton

​​Griffith University (Ethos Project)​ 

​​As our sunburnt country is now bracing for hot, dry summers driven by the El Nino cycle, it is crucial to prepare Australian populations, particularly older people, to avoid health consequences associated with extreme heat.   

​For older persons, extreme heat impacts morbidity and mortality due to various factors. Changes in the body’s thermoregulation as we age- and increasing heat-sensitive conditions such as cardiovascular, metabolic, respiratory, mental or renal issues increase their vulnerability. Also, factors related to social isolation, access to effective cooling options, and economic status can further exacerbate their risk. Despite the knowledge of why older persons are more at risk, we know little about their awareness of heat health risks, perceptions, or attitudes about cooling behaviours. In 2022, the Ethos (extreme heat and older persons) research team at Griffith University conducted a statewide survey to assess the heat risk knowledge, perception, and cooling behaviour of older Queenslanders (n=547) as part of a bigger study to develop an individualised early warning system for heatwaves in order to improve ageing in place.  

​The findings of the Ethos survey highlight the need to raise awareness around heat health risks and heat preparedness in this cohort. Although there was a high awareness of heat as an extreme event for the country (89%), there was a low awareness of heat as a health risk among older Queenslanders (only 25%). A large proportion of respondents (87%) reported suffering from chronic health conditions, with 70% suffering from cardiovascular, respiratory, or renal issues. These conditions are, known to be exacerbated by heat. However, over a quarter (39%) of these respondents did not know that having a chronic condition makes them more susceptible to heat or increases their risk of hospitalisation. Whilst over a half (58%) of the respondents would go to their primary healthcare providers if they felt unwell during hot weather, a large proportion (78%) did not recall being told by a health professional that their health problems could make them more susceptible to heat health impacts.  

​These findings indicate an urgent need to promote awareness of the dangers of extreme heat amongst older people, particularly those with chronic health conditions. It also suggests that primary healthcare providers can play a key role. It is crucial for older people to have a heatwave action or response plan in place with their GP or other healthcare provider as part of health assessments and care planning for a heatwave situation. Primary healthcare professionals clearly have a role to play in supporting older people to be prepared for a heatwave and avoid potential deaths but also highlights the critical heat preparedness requirements of the aged care sector, particularly those involved with in-home care responsibilities.​ 

*The views and opinions expressed in Knowledge Blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of ARIIA, Flinders University and/or the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care.