Hotter Summers Are Deadlier For Older Black People

Extreme heat not only can cause a host of health problems but can also be deadly, too. Credit: Getty/Kenya Rainey

by Willy Blackmore

While it’s only May, the temperature at the southernmost point of the United States is already sailing past summer highs: Key West marked a record-high heat index of 115 this week, breaking the old record by  17 degrees.

It’s just the latest sign that the whole world is getting hot — last summer was the hottest in at least 2,000 years — and will continue to get hotter and hotter. In turn, that’s going to expose a lot more people to intense heat, which not only can cause a host of health problems but can also be deadly, too. 

According to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, 23% of older adults around the world will experience extreme heat by 2050, up from 14% today. And older age, when people are more likely to have compounding health factors, is when high temperatures can be the most deadly. While this is a global trend, the heat will be hotter for some compared to others — and in the United States, it’s likely older Black people who will be at the greatest risk.

According to the study, most of the older population that will be newly exposed to extreme heat will be concentrated in Africa and Asia as a result of both geography and the more rapidly growing populations in those parts of the world in recent decades. But in the global north, including the U.S., you have regions that are “colder and older,” as one researcher put it, that are going to continue to experience more and more extreme heat — and whether it’s in the Northeast, the Midwest, or the South, when those high temperatures hit, they hit the hottest in Black communities. 

The trend was clearly evident long before last summer’s record-breaking temperatures hit: at least 1,600 Americans, who tended to be Black and elderly, died from heart attacks that were exacerbated by high temperatures between 2008 and 2019. That finding came from a study published in the journal “Circulation,” which also found that Black adults have nearly four times the risk of white adults for dying of a heat-induced heart attack. 

It’s similarly lopsided for heat stroke: a 2023 study of extreme heat in New York City found that Black New Yorkers are twice as likely to die of heat stroke than white residents in the city.

“This inequity,” according to the New York City report, “is due to past and current structural racism that creates economic, health care, housing, energy and other systems that benefit white people and disadvantage people of color.” 

While it will take drastic cuts to carbon emissions to halt the overall rise of temperatures, that inequity, which exists in Black communities across the country, won’t end even if climate change is no longer an acute threat.