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Heat Waves, Aging, and Human Cardiovascular Health


Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: October 2014 - Volume 46 - Issue 10 - p 1891–1899
doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000325
Clinical Sciences

ABSTRACT: This brief review is based on a President’s Lecture presented at the Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in 2013. The purpose of this review was to assess the effects of climate change and consequent increases in environmental heat stress on the aging cardiovascular system. The earth’s average global temperature is slowly but consistently increasing, and along with mean temperature changes come increases in heat wave frequency and severity. Extreme passive thermal stress resulting from prolonged elevations in ambient temperature and prolonged physical activity in hot environments creates a high demand on the left ventricle to pump blood to the skin to dissipate heat. Even healthy aging is accompanied by altered cardiovascular function, which limits the extent to which older individuals can maintain stroke volume, increase cardiac output, and increase skin blood flow when exposed to environmental extremes. In the elderly, the increased cardiovascular demand during heat waves is often fatal because of increased strain on an already compromised left ventricle. Not surprisingly, excess deaths during heat waves 1) occur predominantly in older individuals and 2) are overwhelmingly cardiovascular in origin. Increasing frequency and severity of heat waves coupled with a rapidly growing at-risk population dramatically increase the extent of future untoward health outcomes.

Department of Kinesiology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA

This review is based on a President’s Lecture presented at the 2013 American College of Sports Medicine Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Address for correspondence: W. Larry Kenney, Ph.D., 102 Noll Laboratory, University Park, PA 16802; E-mail:

Submitted for publication January 2014.

Accepted for publication February 2014.

© 2014 American College of Sports Medicine