A Warning from the Past: Rising Heat & Rising Stroke Mortality

In 1971, PAJE Founder Rosalind Helfand’s grandfather, Leo Helfand, co-published an article in Weatherwise, a journal of the American Meteorological Society, titled: “Hippocrates, Thermal Stress, and Stroke Mortality — 1966.”

At the time, Helfand was an Environmental Control Engineer with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. His co-author, C. Bridger, was the Chief Statistician for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

They looked at data on the health impacts of what was then “one of the greatest heat waves to afflict the United States in this century.” What they found was that in the most afflicted states, there were 11.5% more deaths on average than for July in the past three years. Stroke deaths increased particularly drastically — a stat they found holds true with increasing temperatures. Elderly people suffered the most.

Helfand and Bridger say, “In abnormally warm summers, not only does the number of deaths per unit time rise with the heat intensity, but the proportion of people aged 65 years and over who die in each unit of time also rises.”

Helfand and Bridger’s work points to clear knowledge that temperatures were rising abnormally even decades ago, and that these increases take a terrible toll on our health, well-being, and even our lives.

For the coming November climate change negotiations, this work indicates a choice: Every time we choose to protect one way of life — that’s highly dependent on fossil fuels, meat heavy diets, and habitat clearance — we are simultaneously choosing to harm and even kill others and ourselves. The good news is that while a rapid transition to a new way of life will certainly be difficult and uncomfortable for many, it also offers us hope of a future that is much healthier, cleaner, and that offers many, many new opportunities for all of us.

Time to heed the warnings that are coming back to us from decades ago.

And some food for thought for COP 26 is, as Helfand and Bridger say, “We have here attempted to focus on the macro-scale, that is, climatological, influences on life processes. The micro-scale, test-tube, and electron-microscope approach to the solution of public health problems requires the balancing overview of the bio-climatologist.”

Read Helfand and Bridger’s full article: Hippocrates, Thermal Stress, and Stroke Mortality–1966.