NJSPL – Extreme Heat, Coastal Flooding, and Health Disparities

April 18, 2024

Extreme Heat, Coastal Flooding, and Health Disparities: Climate Change Impacts on Older Adults in New Jersey

By Josephine O’Grady

New Jersey is facing a myriad of climate challenges, including extreme heat, heavy precipitation, coastal flooding, and more natural disasters. The state is currently warming faster than the rest of the northeast region and is projected to continue experiencing unprecedented warming through the 21st century. These climate impacts are linked to particularly problematic public health effects, including increasing population displacement, food insecurity, infectious diseases, and mental health challenges. Unfortunately, the state’s elderly population is uniquely vulnerable to these public health implications.

According to the New Jersey State Plan on Aging, the percentage of adults aged 60 or older rose 24.7 percent between 2000 and 2019, and this proportion is expected to surpass the number of school-aged children in New Jersey by 2030. Older adults are more likely to have chronic conditions, subjective cognitive decline, and comorbidities. Additionally, the state is not equipped to support the influx of older adults and health disparities experienced by older adults. A joint study between the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP reported that caregivers in New Jersey provide a combined $13 billion in unpaid care per year.

These combined challenges exacerbate climate circumstances that the growing population of older adults in New Jersey will face in the coming decades. When Superstorm Sandy hit New York and New Jersey in 2012, over 100 people were killed – the majority of whom were elderly and lacked access to healthcare and transportation. Additionally, older adults that were injured during the storm or experienced an increased number of storm stressors faced a higher probability of depression. In an immediate impact services assessment of New Jersey emergency service departments in November 2012, trauma-related injuries were the leading cause of the surge in caseloads for patients aged 65 and older following the superstorm. Similar findings have been found in other natural disasters outside of New Jersey. In 2005, over 70% of deaths in New Orleans attributed to Hurricane Katrina were adults aged 75 and older – despite making up only 15% of the city’s population.

Addressing challenges faced by older adults starts with understanding and responding to gaps in the research on climate-related health disparities faced by this population. For example, researchers frequently draw samples from the population 65 years and older when assessing the effects of extreme heat on older adults. However, it is more appropriate to assess these effects while disaggregating relative differences in heat vulnerability, which studies show varies drastically based on comorbidities in older adults. Similarly, there is little research on the differential vulnerability between physically frail and strong elderly patients following Hurricane Sandy. Through these steps, policymakers will have the resources to merge climate action strategies with responses to documented health challenges faced by the state’s elderly population.

Josephine O’Grady is a research assistant with the NJSPL who is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

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