6/12/24 · Health

How do older people experience extreme heat? Research combining anthropology and physics sheds light on the matter

Research by the UOC and other universities, published in one of Nature's journals, calls for a more holistic view of older people to promote their well-being amidst the scorching hot temperatures
Tired upset senior retired person using electric fan during heatwave sitting at the desk.

Photo: Adobe Stock

Last year, 2,155 people died in Spain from causes related to extreme temperatures. In 2022, the number of deaths exceeded 3,000. That summer, a group of researchers observed up close how a group of older people in Madrid, Spain, and Warsaw, Poland, coped with the blistering temperatures. These observations led to the publication of an article in Nature's prestigious Humanities and Social Sciences Communication journal. This research is groundbreaking because it combines anthropology and physics to find out how older people in cities cope with extreme heat. The conclusion: their beliefs, their emotional state, their life history, their financial situation and the materials used in their buildings are key. The same temperature can be experienced in many different ways, even by the same person. When facing extreme heat, older people (who are more vulnerable) need more city preparedness, rather than restrictive recommendations.

"A heat wave alert is not the end of the world and older people are active and adaptable, but we need to talk about what each group in the city needs and how we can help each other," said Paloma Yáñez Serrano, visual anthropologist, lead author of the article and postdoctoral researcher in the Urban Transformation and Global Change Laboratory (TURBA Lab) at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya's Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (UOC-IN3).

"It's not so much a matter of estimating a temperature in degrees, but of seeing what people do with that temperature. In order to design an action protocol for heat waves, we need to take into account thermoception, i.e. the perception of hot and cold. Heat is an individual experience and if we want to take care of this highly vulnerable population, we need to understand it better," she added.


Twenty participants and a film

Published earlier this spring, the article is part of the EmCliC project, which Yáñez is conducting together with experts from two Polish universities and two Norwegian research centres. EmCliC aims to unite several disciplines to tackle the challenge of extreme heat exacerbated by climate change. The team of experts that produced the article included anthropologists and physicists, a combination that was something of a challenge.

The research focused on older people living in cities considered urban heat islands, i.e. where temperatures are significantly higher than in their rural surroundings as a result of human activity.

This is the case in Madrid and Warsaw. The team was in close contact with ten people in each city during the summers of 2021 and 2022. They got to know them well and installed sensors in their homes to record the temperature. The researchers were able to qualitatively and quantitatively analyse the participants' experiences of extreme heat and the measures they took to cope with it, such as turning on the air conditioning, closing the blinds, using a wet towel or spraying themselves with water.

Yáñez even made a film of the people in Madrid. "It's as if the city isn't designed for people and the heat, [...] as if solutions to the heat must be found inside one's home, because the city has neither the means nor the resources," said one of the people in the film.


About the recommendations

According to Yáñez, although the general recommendations for episodes of extreme heat and heat waves make sense, the study participants felt that their plight was not well understood by the authorities who made them. "For every recommendation they had a 'but'. They were told to reduce physical activity, but some of them had to exercise and went out in the morning. They were told to stay at home and that their families would look after them, but many do not have family or the means to keep the air conditioning on all day, so the temperature in their homes could be higher than outside. They were told not to drink alcohol, while most were eager to go out for a cold beer."

Yáñez explained that some felt they were back in the pandemic: "They said that the climate imbalance was the latest excuse to lock them up. They were very critical of the urban structure, the closure of parks and the felling of trees, and they showed an awareness of the region that many younger people may not possess."


An inspiring generation

In this sense, the visual anthropologist invites us to take inspiration from older people in the way they use energy resources. "Those with children complained that their kids would come round and pull up the blinds, knowing full well when they should be lowered to create that cave-like effect. It's knowledge that's in their skin, in their life experience," she said. Some, the UOC researcher added, were even overly "stoic", enduring the rising temperatures without thinking about their well-being.

Yáñez plans to continue working at the intersection of scientific disciplines to better understand and overcome the situations created by climate change.


This UOC research contributes to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 3, Good Health and Well-being; 10, Reduced Inequalities; 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities; 12, Responsible Consumption and Production, and 13, Climate Action


The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health.

Over 500 researchers and more than 50 research groups work in the UOC's seven faculties, its eLearning Research programme and its two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).

The university also develops online learning innovations at its eLearning Innovation Center (eLinC), as well as UOC community entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer via the Hubbik platform.

Open knowledge and the goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu.

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