Heat Waves Kill In Areas Without Businesses To Draw Older Citizens

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Older People and Heave Waves

Severe heat waves kill more people in neighborhoods where there are few inviting businesses to draw older people out of their apartments, new research suggests.

A study of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago found higher-than-average mortality rates in areas where businesses were run-down, and dominated by liquor stores and bars.

While other studies had shown that elderly people in low-income neighborhoods were most at risk of dying in a heat wave, this research shows what it is about some disadvantaged areas that leave residents more vulnerable, said Christopher Browning, lead author of the study and associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

"The neighborhoods with the highest mortality rates were less likely to have stores or other businesses where older people felt comfortable going to, even in the worst heat," Browning said.

"They stayed bunkered in their apartments where they were most at risk for heat-related illnesses that led to death."

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Browning conducted the study with Kathleen Cagney, assistant professor in the Department of Health Studies, and Danielle Wallace, a doctoral student, both at the University of Chicago; and Seth Feinberg, an assistant professor at Western Washington University. Their results will be published in the August issue of the American Sociological Review.

"Previous research has focused on the lack of city services or the lack of neighbors checking on neighbors," Cagney said. "Both are important, but our research indicates that the neighborhood infrastructure itself could be implicated."

Nearly 800 people in Chicago, mostly elderly folks living alone, died during one week in the midst of a July 1995 heat wave. During several days that week, the temperature was over 100, with a heat index on July 13 of 126.

The researchers used several data sets to explore how neighborhood conditions in Chicago were linked to mortality during that heat wave.

They found, as expected, that most of the heat-related deaths occurred in lower-income neighborhoods, even after taking into account factors such as race. "It was the fact that these residents were poorer that left them most vulnerable," Browning said.

Factors that are often linked to low-income neighborhoods

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