Approximately one quarter of all persons age 65 and older that visited North Carolina’s emergency departments in 2016 were hospitalized as a result of their heat-related illness.

Older adults are particularly vulnerable to climate extremes. The number of older adults in the United States is expected to grow substantially over the coming decades due to the continued aging of the Baby Boomer generation, increases in lifespan, and increases in survivorship rates. Aging populations can be particularly vulnerable to extreme heat events, more frequent and intense hurricanes, flooding and other severe weather, and decreasing air quality due to events such as wildfire.

Extreme Heat

  • Heatwaves are dangerous for people over 65. Increasing numbers of high heat and high humidity days place aging populations at a high risk of exposure.
  • Risk of dying from exposure to high heat is much greater among aging populations, particularly in isolated, rural areas in North Carolina. The risk of death increases among those with chronic illnesses such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
  • Of the 4,800 emergency department visits for heat-related illness in North Carolina during the heat season of 2016, 30% were over the age of 55.
  • Approximately one quarter of all persons age 65 and older that visited North Carolina’s emergency departments in 2016 were hospitalized as a result of their heat-related illness.

Percent of Population and Population Growth: Over Age 65 from 1950 to 2015

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Source: 1950 – 2010 US Decennial Censuses and 2015 American Community Survey 5 Year Estimates.

Hurricanes, Flooding, and Severe Weather

  • Evacuation prior to hurricanes can pose an increased risk for older adults, particularly those who live in assisted living facilities, depend upon at-home care, or are no longer able to drive. The move to a shelter, even on a temporary basis, can be difficult and expensive for older adults who depend upon medication and medical equipment.
  • The loss of power, even for short periods of time, due to severe weather can be particularly challenging to aging adults who depend upon medical equipment, such as breathing machines or ventilators.

Air Quality

  • Poor air quality from dust, increasing ozone, or wildfire smoke can impact lung function, exacerbating conditions such as asthma and COPD, and can increase the risk of heat attack in older adults.

Poor physical health from chronic illness can place aging populations at increased health risk from extreme climate events; however, the process of aging, even without chronic illness, can impair the ability of the body to regulate body temperature.

Communities with increasing numbers of aging populations should incorporate these vulnerabilities into their emergency preparedness and public health programs.