How is it that people die in their house from heat?

Ok lately there have been alot of stories about people dying from heat in their houses or apartments because of no AC. I don’t get it…I have had my air go out in the summer and it is definetely uncomfortable, I don’t understands how you can die under these circumstances considering that you have shade and water. even if it was that bad wouldn’t you understand you were getting to hot, and get in a tub of cold water or something?

The thing you need to realise about heatwaves is that they don’t actually increase the annual death rate. Nor does the temperature correlate in any way to the short-term increase in mortality, while the temperature deviance from normal does correlate.

To illustrate what I mean consider two examples.

The summer death rate in, for example, Helsinki and Melbourne might both be .1% of the total population per week while the average annual death rate might be 2%. The average summer maximum in Helsinki might be 20oC while the average maximum in Melbourne might be 30oC

Now if Helsinki gets a heatwave of 30oC for a week the death rate will skyrocket to 0.5% for that week. Yet comparable temperatures don’t cause any increase in deaths in Melbourne. However a heatwave of 40oC in Melbourne will see an increase in deaths to 0.5%.

In a year with a week-long 30oC heatwave the average annual mortality in Helsinki will still be 2%, the same as a year with unusual cold summers. The same is true of Melbourne with a 40oC heatwave.

So what’s all that telling us that’s relevant to your question? Well firstly it’s telling us that it’s not really the heat that’s killing people, it’s the deviance from normal temperatures. Secondly it’s telling us that people can learn to cope with almost any temperature, but that if they haven’t learned how to cope they will die. Thirdly, and most importantly, it’s telling us that heat can’t be really killing many people. If it did then hot years should have higher death rates, and they don’t.

So what’s up with all those extra deaths during heatwaves if heatwaves don’t kill people? What appears to happen is that heatwaves act as the final straw for people who are already about to die. The elderly, those with heart conditions, those with sever chronic illness. All these people would have died within the year anyway, it was just a case of whether it was walking up the stairs that killed them, or a minor car accident or a bout of the ‘flu or any of a million other causes that are quite harmless to healthy young people. So the thing is that people may feel hot, but they are already in a weakened condition and the heat brings on a heart attack, a stroke, a debilitating fall or simply leads to unconsciousness from dehydration or hypothermia from which they never recover. It’s not the heat that’s causing the deaths per se.

Which brings us to the other point, that people can learn to cope if they are regularly exposed to those temperatures. That is what getting in the bath, keeping windows closed in the morning, drinking extra fluids, heading down to the local air conditioned mall or library and so forth does. People learn what makes the heat bearable before they become critically vulnerable to the effects. It becomes habit and it becomes part of society, particularly for the elderly.

People die in unusually hot temperatures because they have never been exposed to those temperatures before and never learned how to cope. If the person has learned to rely on air conditioning it becomes even worse because of both the sudden shock and the fact that they have no alternatives.

Some people have a “heat stroke” which happens very suddenly. They may lose consciousness and develop the other symptoms (very high fever, slow heart rate, convulsions, etc.) before having a chance to do anything to relieve the problem. There may even be some confusion before the stroke itself occurs so that the person isn’t thinking straight. Heat strokes can be deadly.