A recent study conducted by the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) concluded that people with schizophrenia are at a higher risk during extreme heat events. The study, published in GeoHealth, examined deaths from other chronic conditions in British Columbia during the 2021 heat dome with deaths during the same period in previous years and found a three-fold increase among people with schizophrenia. 

Michael Lee, lead author and epidemiologist with Environmental Health Services at the BCCDC, says the study was conducted to understand who is most at risk so that they can prepare for future heat events, which are likely to become more frequent and severe in the coming decades due to climate change. 

The study compared the prevalence of 26 chronic conditions among people who died during the eight-day period of the 2021 heat dome with people who died within the same time period over the previous nine years. It found that mental illnesses were among the conditions that left people most susceptible to death during periods of high temperature, with schizophrenia patients at the highest risk. 

Schizophrenia patients have overlapping risk factors that likely all play a role in an increased vulnerability to extreme heat. Schizophrenia often includes psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, thought disorders, and cognitive losses which can lead to a disconnect from reality. Many people living with schizophrenia also suffer from anosognosia or lack of insight into their own illness. Schizophrenia may also lead to social isolation and lower socioeconomic status, both risk factors for death during extreme hot weather. Additionally, some medications used to treat schizophrenia can play a role in overheating by affecting the body’s ability to regulate temperature. 

Faydra Aldridge, Chief Executive Officer of the BC Schizophrenia Society (BCSS), emphasizes that individuals living with schizophrenia are more susceptible to heat-related illness and that their families and caregivers must be aware of this increased risk. Educating oneself to recognize the symptoms of heat-related illness and engage in emergency cooling measures can help ensure everyone’s safety during heat waves. 

It is important for people with schizophrenia and their support networks to be aware of these risks and take preventative measures. Most injuries and deaths during extreme heat events occur indoors due to unsafe temperatures. We all have a responsibility to check in on our loved ones and neighbours during extreme weather events, especially if they don’t have access to air conditioning or other necessities to keep cool. Strong social and community connections can help mitigate the risks. 

The study also found a higher risk for people who use substances and for people with chronic kidney disease, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes, most of which are well-recognized risk factors during extreme heat. 

The BCSS recommends these tips to stay safe during extreme heat events:

  • Monitor the temperature of your home.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Avoid heavy exercise or physical activity during peak hours of heat.
  • Seek shade or time indoors.
  • Wear loose and lightweight clothing.
  • Make sure you have water and snacks when leaving the house.
  • Avoid spending time outside during the peak temperatures of the day.
  • Use cold and wet cloths or water to cool down.
  • Wear sunscreen and reapply generously every few hours.
  • Spend time indoors at public libraries, recreation centers, or community centers.

This study highlights the importance of taking the necessary precautions to protect oneself and others during extreme heat events, particularly for individuals with schizophrenia who may be at higher risk. 

To read more about this study, visit BCCDC and Science Magazine.