The heat wave that gripped the nation for the past two weeks has been described by the Meteorological Agency as a “life-threatening disaster.” More than 22,000 people across Japan were taken to hospitals on an emergency basis in the week to last Sunday, and heatstroke claimed the lives of at least 65 people over this period — the largest weekly toll since the government began compiling comparable statistics in 2008. The death toll in Tokyo’s 23 wards for this month reached 71 on Tuesday — with as many as 14 succumbing on Sunday alone — compared with a total of 25 in the same month last year.
The disaster-level weather should not be shrugged off as a one-off phenomenon in an unusually hot summer. Given the greater frequency of such extreme weather, society must make more concerted and continuous efforts to better protect its weakest members from the hazards of extreme temperatures, including heatstroke, which claims hundreds of lives each year.
In recent weeks, the nation has been hit by a series of extreme weather conditions, such as the extended downpours in western Japan that left more than 200 dead in floods and landslides earlier this month. In the ongoing heat wave, temperatures have reached 40 degrees in many parts of the country — hitting a record 41.1 degrees in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, on Monday and also topping 40 degrees in Tokyo for the first time on record. The agency warns that the intense heat could continue through early August.
What we seem to be witnessing is that extreme weather events are happening so frequently — due at least partly to the effects of climate change — that they can no longer be dismissed as “unusual.” Long-term forecasts on weather patterns worldwide indicate that the extreme weather conditions that we’re experiencing with increasing frequency may not be so uncommon in the future.
In extreme weather conditions, the weakest members of society are exposed to the greatest risk of harm. Many of the victims of the landslides and floods in western Japan were elderly residents — including those living alone — who were unable to evacuate in time.
Elderly people and small children are less able to handle extreme heat conditions than other people so they are more susceptible to severe health problems. More than 80 percent of those who died of heatstroke in Tokyo this month were in their 60s or older. Nearly half of those taken to hospitals by ambulance due to suspected health problems from the heat were elderly people. Small children are more vulnerable to heat reflection from the ground.
The concentration of heat-related health problems among elderly people, coupled with the growing risk of extreme temperatures caused by climate change, means that Japan must take additional measures to protect its rapidly growing population of elderly people — particularly as an increasing number of them live alone and some may be isolated from the rest of the local community.
Cautions against health harm from heat waves tends to focus on outdoor work, school activities and sports. The intense heat in recent days has renewed concerns about the outdoor events such as the marathon and race walking in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, which will kick off in July.
What’s more worrying given Japan’s rapidly aging population is the fact that many elderly people sustain heat-related health issues when they stay indoors. More than half of the elderly people who suffer from heatstroke and other illnesses caused by intense heat reportedly develop the conditions at home. Elderly people have a higher risk of suffering from dehydration because people tend to retain less water in their bodies as they age.
It is also believed that elderly people have more trouble sensing heat or hunger than their younger counterparts, making it easier for heat to build up in their bodies. Since elderly people have a greater chance of suffering from chronic illnesses, they may also have trouble noticing quickly enough when excessive heat gradually takes a toll on their body functions. In urban areas the risk of people suffering from heat-induced health problems at night tends to be higher because temperatures drop little even after the sun goes down.
All of these health risks increase even more when elderly people are living alone — as more and more of them are forecast to do as the nation rapidly grays — and other people might not be around to monitor their health conditions on a regular basis.
As weather patterns continue to change, it is society’s weakest members whose health will be impacted the most. Society as a whole must think of what can be done to protect them.