Hot temperatures may be bad for brains, even young and healthy ones: Study
saaby/flickr

Hot temperatures may be bad for brains, even young and healthy ones: Study

"It's really shocking that we found such a significant effect on a population that is usually considered immune to these heat exposures"

A new study out of Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that high temperatures are linked to cognitive impairments, even in resilient populations.


Researchers at the university followed 44 college students who were living in dorms at a college in the greater Massachusetts area. Half of the students had air conditioning in the dorms, and half did not. Those with air conditioning performed better on cognitive tests, according to the study published today in PLOS Medicine.

"This is the first field study that found how heat waves impact the way young and healthy individuals are able to think," lead author Jose Guillermo Cedeño Laurent told Environmental Health News.

Students were followed via wearable monitors and surveyed from July 9-20, 2016, during five days that were considered a heat wave. Students were tested on their cognitive speed and working memory through two tests; one consisted of addition and subtraction, while the other made them identify the color of a word displayed on the screen.

The students who lived in the non-air conditioned dorms performed between 4.1 percent to 13.4 percent worse compared to the group of students in air conditioned dorms and their own scores prior to the heatwave.

These types of cognitive effects are usually found in vulnerable populations, like young children or the elderly. But the Harvard study showed that high temperatures can affect even those considered resilient to heat.

"It's really shocking that we found such a significant effect on a population that is usually considered immune to these heat exposures," Cedeño Laurent said.

The study raises new questions about adapting to warming climates, he said. Many older buildings in Massachusetts are built to handle harsher winter months, which means they can trap heat. It works in the winter, but it makes buildings that much hotter when a heat wave comes through the area, he said.

One of the implications of the study is figuring out how to cool buildings, without overdoing it, which can also cause cognitive impairments.

People spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, Cedeño Laurent added, meaning that buildings need to be adapted to account for higher temperatures from the changing climate. "These are the places where we live, where we learn, where we love, where we sleep," he said.

But it's not as simple as putting air conditioning units in every building, he said, because those units can leak chemicals—such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)— that add to climate change.

Instead, Cedeño Laurent suggests using a district cooling system, which is a centralized, more efficient way to cool buildings. Instead of installing air conditioning in each building, the district cooling system works similar to electricity, where there would a giant air conditioning unit that would be able cool several buildings.

This is something universities can do to bring air conditioning into buildings that don't currently have it. It's going to be implemented on one of Harvard's campuses, Cedeño Laurent said.

solar power schools

Solar power at Pennsylvania schools doubled during the pandemic

“If this growth continues, schools could set Pennsylvania up as a clean energy leader and not just the fossil fuels we’re known for.”

NORTH BRADDOCK, Penn.—On Wednesday evening, 10th grader Abby Wypych stood in front of Woodland Hills School District’s board and urged them to approve a feasibility study on installing solar panels.

Keep reading...Show less
Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Methane leaks focus of discussion at Board of Supervisors

The Santa Barbara Grand Jury’s concern for oil well leaks were borne out in neighboring Kern County recently, when a visiting researcher heard a hissing noise that turned out to be methane escaping from two oil wells, idled since the late 1980s.

Mass General Brigham’s commitment to achieving healthcare sustainability

The health sector is responsible for approximately 8.5% of U.S. carbon emissions, which are the leading cause of global climate change. As an industry leader in sustainable healthcare delivery, Mass General Brigham is committed to taking actions that minimize its impact on the environment.

Pittsburgh's tree canopy is fragile and uneven. Can it be more equitable?

With increasing recognition that trees affect not only the environment but also mental health, the canopy’s friends target neighborhoods like Hazelwood, Homewood, the Hilltop.

Democrats scramble on energy prices ahead of Memorial Day

Record gas prices are increasingly raising alarm among Democrats and Republicans as the summer driving season kicks off this weekend, but there is no clear path for bipartisan action to help tame those costs.

Colorado, European Union trade ideas on climate change, clean energy

European Union ambassadors on energy and greenhouse gas limits seek knowledge from Colorado success stories, and tell their own.

Six ways climate change is making poor people poorer

Heat waves like the ones roasting South Asia this year don't just sap people's strength. They drain people's finances in ways that are not always obvious.

From our Newsroom
roe v. wade

Derrick Z. Jackson: Roe v. Wade draft bodes ill for air, wetlands and the EPA

Justice Alito’s longstanding consistency in wanting to restrict EPA authority makes it transparent where he wants the court to go.

environmental justice

Op-Ed: Black gold and the color line

How historical racist redlining practices are linked to higher exposures to oil and gas wells.

Our mothers' gifts: Readers respond

Our mothers' gifts: Readers respond

We asked you to share one "big lesson" your mother gave. And you responded

Lake Mead

Dykstra: A corpse in a barrel in a drying reservoir

And other climate change tales for our age

A mother's gift

Gifts from our mothers

What one "big gift" did your mother give you? We want your story.

Bird photography

Earth Day 2022: Amidst the crises, don’t forget the beauty

Words and images from our founder, Pete Myers, on how bird photography keeps him connected to and curious about a planet in peril.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.