Go beyond aging study data to ask ‘why?’

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Outside, there is still a chill in the air and I have recent memories of several inches of snow on the ground. Inside, I’m reading about sweltering summer heat and its effect on respiratory hospitalizations.

Specifically, the largest epidemiological study of its kind – 12.5 million Medicare beneficiaries in 213 U.S. urban counties with at least 30 percent of their population 65 or older. “Heat-related emergency hospitalizations for respiratory diseases in the Medicare population” (Anderson, et. al) was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health investigated the connection between heat and emergency respiratory hospitalizations, which was less clear than that heat-related mortality in the elderly. They found that for each 10 degrees Fahrenheit rise in daily average summer temperature, there was an associated 4.3 percent increase in respiratory-related hospitalizations. No adjustments were made for air pollution, age, gender or seasonal trends in hospitalization rates and temperature. That works out to about 30 additional hospitalizations per day – most of them occurring on the day of heat exposure and the day following exposure.

You could write a basic story about seniors and heat from the study results.  Or, you could think about a less routine approach to aging and illness. The size of the cohort is large enough to support deeper, unique angles – at local, state, and regional levels. For example, by trolling hospital data, journalists can spot clusters where heat-related respiratory hospitalizations are prevalent – perhaps raising questions about prevention, patient education, social support services, patient monitoring, or quality of life for seniors.

Elderly people are frequently malnourished or dehydrated, and most battle multiple chronic diseases. Their metabolisms and cognition are different than those of younger adults. Many live on fixed incomes, and are frequently isolated.  These issues can be woven into a report, perhaps about one community, or one hospital, or one population. The study by itself is interesting. However looking past the numbers, into the “why” makes for an even more compelling narrative.

It’s not too soon to think about your approach to summer-related aging news.

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