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Disability and Death in the Elderly
Volume 4, Number 21: 23 May 2001

Climate alarmists are always ranting and raving about how disastrous (even deadly) rising temperatures are for the elderly.  They are also forever telling us that the temperatures of the past decade are the warmest they've been for at least a thousand years.  If both of these claims are true, elderly folks around the globe should be in a world of hurt.  But are they?

For those of you who are regular readers of CO2 Science Magazine, the answer should come as no surprise: no, elderly people are not in a world of hurt.  In fact, they are living both longer and healthier lives than they have for at least a thousand years.

So what's the story here?  For one thing, cold is a much more effective killer than heat.  In our review of the work of Keatinge et al. (2000), for example (who studied heat- and cold-related mortality in people aged 65-74 in north Finland, south Finland, southwest Germany, the Netherlands, Greater London, north Italy, and Athens, Greece) we reported they determined that "all regions showed more annual cold related mortality than heat related mortality."  In fact, over the seven regions studied, annual cold related deaths were nearly ten times greater than annual heat related deaths.  Likewise,
Goklany and Straja (2000) determined there were no trends in deaths due to either extreme heat or cold in people over 65 years of age in the United States between 1979 and 1997, although deaths due to extreme cold exceeded those due to extreme heat by 80 to 125%.  Also, the study of Feigin et al. (2000) demonstrated that "avoiding low temperature" in Siberia could protect against stroke; while the study of Kloner et al. (1999) demonstrated that "even in the relatively mild climate of southern California," deaths due to coronary artery disease are more prevalent in the colder winter months of the year than they are in the warmer summer months.

Perhaps one of the most interesting health-related studies we have highlighted is that of Tuljapurkar and Boe (2000), who found that in every one of the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany (excluding the former East Germany), Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) mortality over the period 1950-1994 "declined exponentially at a roughly constant rate."  Furthermore, in describing the detailed nature of this dramatic finding, Horiuchi (2000) noted that data from the United States show "the health of the elderly greatly improved in the 1980s and 1990s, suggesting that the extended length of life in old age is mainly due to better health rather than prolonged survival in sickness."

Providing additional support for this astonishing conclusion is the just-published study of Manton and Gu (2001).  With the completion of the latest of the five National Long-Term Care Surveys of disability in U.S. citizens over 65 years of age (which began in 1982 and now extends to 1999) these researchers were able to discern two most interesting trends: (1) disabilities in this age group decreased over the entire period studied, and (2) disabilities decreased at a rate that grew ever larger with the passing of time.

Specifically, over the entire 17-year period of record, there was an amazing relative decline in chronic disability of 25%, as the percentage of the over-65-years-of-age group that was disabled dropped from 26.2% in 1982 to 19.7% in 1999.  What is more, the percentage disability decline rate per year for the periods 1982-1989, 1989-1994 and 1994-1999 was 0.26, 0.38 and 0.56% per year, respectively.  Commenting on the ever-accelerating nature of this disability decline, the authors say "it is surprising, given the low level of disability in 1994, that the rate of improvement accelerated" over the most recent five-year interval.

Clearly, these several well-documented and extremely positive findings fly in the face of the irrational rantings of those who use baseless scare tactics to promote their anti-fossil-fuel agenda.  Either their claim of unprecedented warming over the last part of the 20th century is false, or their claim of the great toll of disability and death that warming will take on the elderly is way off base.  Or, both assertions are incorrect.

So just what is going on?  To recapitulate what is known, it appears that in countries with highly developed market economies -- such as the G7 nations, where good health care is readily available -- deaths of infants, children and young adults have been dramatically reduced over the last century or so, to the point where average life expectancy is now largely determined by what happens to elderly people; and it is evident that the elderly in these countries are living longer and longer with the passing of time.  It is further evident that this latter phenomenon is likely due to the ever-improving health of the elderly, as manifest in the accelerating decline in disability among older people, which is likely the result of ongoing improvements in their bodily systems responsible for repairing cellular damage caused by degenerative processes associated with old age (see our Journal Review Oxidative Stress and Ageing).

It is instructive to note that these improvements in human health and vitality are not just the result of the incorrectness of the claims of the anti-CO2 crowd; for the invalidity of their claims would merely argue for the maintenance of the status quo in both human longevity and disability.  That is to say, if the climate alarmists are wrong in claiming the globe has recently gotten hotter than it's been at any time in the past thousand years and that such warming produces untimely disability and death in the elderly, we would merely expect to not see any increases in human disabilities and death over the past couple of decades.  But we are seeing actual improvements in these areas, which must be due to real improvements in something that actually promotes better health and longevity, and which does so more effectively with each passing year.

So what can that health-promoting life-lengthening factor possibly be?  Is there anything positive occurring in the global environment, which climate alarmists regularly paint as going to hell in a hand-basket?

Manton and Gu cite many research papers that suggest that improvements in human nutrition are the underlying cause of the documented improvements in well-being among the elderly; and we agree with them and the authors of the studies they cite.  However, we go a bit further in suggesting a specific source of those improvements.  Because we are witnessing an ever-improving situation with respect to human disability and longevity, we believe that the cause of these trends must be ever-increasing concentrations of health-promoting and disease-fighting substances in foods -- which is something that may well be driven by the ever-increasing CO2 content of the air, as explained in more detail in our Editorial of 28 March 2001 and our Journal Review of the study of Melov et al. (2000).

Although this suggestion is far from proven, something very positive is happening to promote the well documented increases in human health and longevity around the world; and our hypothesis would seem to have as much merit as any in this regard.  At the very least, it is a much more tenable idea than the discredited claim of the climate alarmists, i.e., that increases in the air's CO2 concentration are leading to declining health and premature death in the planet's elderly.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

In conclusion, we must all ask ourselves what for some could be a very embarrassing question: can any good thing come out of a car's tailpipe?  Or a factory's smokestack?  The answer is a definite yes.  And we all may have already benefited from it.

Dr. Craig D. Idso
Dr. Keith E. Idso
Vice President

Manton, K.G. and Gu, XL.  2001.  Changes in the prevalence of chronic disability in the United States black and nonblack population above age 65 from 1982 to 1999.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA 98: 6354-6359.