Kitchener-Waterloo

We're more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses than we think: study

A Wilfrid Laurier University study finds many people underestimate their vulnerability when it comes to suffering from heat-related illnesses.

Vulnerable members of the population often overestimate their ability to cope with prolonged heat

(File Photo)

People tend to underestimate their own vulnerability to heat-related illnesses during prolonged periods of hot weather, says Anne Wilson. 

The professor of social psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University is one of the lead researchers of an ongoing study at the university looking at the impact of heat-related illnesses on vulnerable populations.

She said it's this attitude of, "It can happen to you, but not me," that often causes people to be unprepared in coping with the heat.

A 'stealthy' kind of illness

Initial findings of the study suggest seniors often underestimate their own vulnerability to the heat, she said. Either they don't recognize the symptoms of illness or they talk themselves out of taking those symptoms seriously.

"Heat-related illnesses are especially kind of stealthy. If you don't know [how] to recognize the symptoms, then it's really easy to fool yourself into thinking that, 'Oh, this is really nothing, or that's really nothing,' until it is actually too late," she said.

If you don't know to recognize the symptoms then it's really easy to fool yourself into thinking that 'oh, this is really nothing, or that's really nothing,' until it is actually too late.- Anne Wilson, Wilfrid Laurier University professor

"What we've been interested in here is how people often miscalibrate the degree to which they're personally at risk for things. So people will often recognize that other people might be at risk, but they might say 'but not me, I'm fine.'" 

Here's a list of heat-illness symptoms to watch for.

Underestimating the risk

If seniors have air conditioning or drink a lot of water, they may look past their own vulnerability to the heat, she said. But this complacency could come at a cost, especially if there was a power outage or if they fail to recognize a symptom of heat exhaustion.  

"Because people tend to underestimate risk for themselves they then often end up just being less prepared for potential emergencies."

The goal of the study is to find out the degree to which vulnerable populations are unprepared to deal with the heat and how best to make them aware of symptoms to watch for. The current phase of the study is expected to be completed in a month or so.

Because people tend to underestimate risk for themselves they then often end up just being less prepared for potential emergencies.- Anne Wilson, Wilfrid Laurier University professor

Check on your loved ones

Brandie Bevis, an analyst with the Region of Waterloo Public Health, said during prolonged bouts of hot weather, everyone is at risk of heat illnesses, but seniors are among the most vulnerable.

"As we age, our bodies tend to be less able to adapt to the heat," she said. An older person may lose some of their ability to sweat or even sense thirst like they used to. Prolonged exposure to heat could lead to chronic dehydration, which is particularly dangerous for these members of the population.

"That's why we recommend for people to check on their neighbours, check on their family members, especially those who are older adults who have any of these additional conditions, and are alone," she said.

Heat illness: what to look for

Public health identifies the following symptoms of heat illness:

  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headache
  • Rapid breathing and heartbeat
  • Extreme thirst
  • Decreased urination with unusually dark yellow urine

Bevis said for those without air conditioning or other ways of keeping cool, there are many cooling stations around the city open to the public. 

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