Heat wave: why high temperatures are more dangerous for women

Heat wave: why high temperatures are more dangerous for women

Several scientific studies indicate that women – especially over the age of 65 – are more likely to die during periods of heat wave. Gender inequality is beginning to be taken seriously and its causes are still poorly understood.

Hundreds have already died from the soaring temperatures suffocating Europe in the summer of 2022. Fear of the worst is enough for the number of deaths caused by this heat wave. In France, the 2003 period – the period in which France recorded an increase in the number of deaths by about 15,000 people – prompted the authorities to double the warnings.

Unsurprisingly, awareness efforts primarily targeted the elderly and those with comorbidities, who are the most affected by heat waves. But it appears that there is not only age-related inequality in the face of rising temperatures.

The British newspaper The Guardian wrote: “The health risks are greater for women than for men.” The hypothesis that a heat wave kills more women is a relatively recent one.

Health risks are greater for older women

She saw her first illustration in France in 2003. “When we observe populations in different age groups, we see that during this heat wave, the mortality rate among women was 15% higher than among men,” Dutch researchers wrote. An article published in 2018, analyzed about sixty studies between 2000 and 2016 focusing on deaths during heat waves.

Another study, still taking place in the Netherlands in 2021, refines this observation slightly. Looking at the death rate linked to the country’s temperature extremes, scientists from the University of Amsterdam found that the gap between the number of deaths between men and women during the hottest periods increases with age, especially after the age of 65.

The scientific literature devoted to this phenomenon is not yet extensive, “and so it is still too early to draw definitive conclusions, but the data very seriously suggest a relationship between sex and the risk of death during heat waves,” notes Simon Cork, a physiologist at Anglia Ruskin University in New York City. Cambridge.

In any case, the scientific pool seemed sufficient for the British government, which added women over 75, young children, and individuals with a serious illness or major mental disorder to the list. Citizens most at risk during a heat wave.

Less sweat and longer life?

However, British authorities do not indicate why women are more likely to die from heat. No wonder: The cause of gender inequality in the face of rising temperatures remains largely a mystery.

Scientists have no shortage of hypotheses. Start with a long list of physiological factors that can play a role. “The simplest explanation is physical and has to do with the fact that women’s bodies, which are generally smaller than men’s, heat up faster,” said Mike Tipton, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth who has studied the body’s responses to extreme situations.

In this hypothesis, as the body temperature rises more rapidly, the heart begins to move more quickly to react to the heat shock, “which would increase the risk of cardiovascular disease,” this scientist summarizes.

Simon Cork says that women sweat less than men, “especially as they get older.” However, “it is practically the body’s only natural cooling mechanism, as it is the process of evaporation of body water that has warmed up under the influence of stress or heat.” This specialist explains.

To complete this picture, “We must not forget that the feeling of thirst diminishes with age, which means that older adults may tend to forget to hydrate themselves,” Simon Cork adds. Therefore, it is a combination of physiological factors that will make it possible to better understand why women of advanced age are at risk.

“We can add to that the fact that they tend to live longer than their partner,” says Mike Tipton. So they often find themselves alone at home, and “we know that isolation plays a role in deaths during heat waves” because single people make less effort to take care of themselves, the University of Portsmouth scientist confirms.

The problem of public toilets in Asia

Mais “je pense que les facteurs sociaux et environnementaux jouent un rôle tout aussi important pour expliquer cette surmortalité féminine”, assure Ilan Kelman, spécialiste des questions de santé à l’University College de Londres’ (UmvaCL) sanitaire quitaire Natural disasters.

This specialist notes that differences in behavior between men and women, related to social contexts, “often played an important role in explaining differences in mortality during natural disasters.” He explains that one of the reasons more men are dying during fires is that they often intervene on the front lines (for example, a firefighter’s job is too masculine). During epidemics, women are often the first to be affected in societies where they primarily hold the positions of caregivers and nurses.

Heat waves will not be very different from other natural disasters in this respect. “In Asia, for example, we have observed that the number of women who have died during heat waves, in particular, due to the problem of access to public toilets,” confirms Ilan Kellman. In fact, the higher the temperature, the more hydration you need and the greater the urge to urinate. “For men, the absence of public toilets is less risky because it is socially acceptable for them to defecate in public, while this is not the case for women, some prefer not to drink to reduce the risk of having to find a toilet,” summarizes the researcher at UCL.

This example may sound anecdotal, but it proves that the issue of gender inequality in the face of a heat wave “likely stems from a combination of physiological, behavioral, and social factors,” says Mike Tipton.

For him, “until we fix” on what causes heat waves to be more deadly to women, “it would be impossible to provide an effective response.” We won’t know, for example, whether it would be better to develop treatments to promote sweating, work on drugs that work better on heart rate, or whether simply visiting your elderly grandmother would be more effective. To make sure she takes care of her. by hydration.

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