Heatwaves may hinder the ability to think, study says

BOSTON – The record-breaking heatwave in San Diego County may have made it difficult for people to think.

New research from the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health shows extremely hot weather may hinder cognitive abilities.

The study reported students without air-conditioned dorms performed poorer on cognitive tests in comparison to students with AC dorms.

The research was conducted on young, healthy individuals during the heatwave in Boston to emphasize the detrimental impacts of hot weather, even in an indoor setting.

“Most of the research on the health effects of heat has been done in vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, creating the perception that the general population is not at risk from heat waves,” said Jose Guillermo Cedeño-Laurent, lead author of the study and research fellow at Harvard Chan School.

The perception he referenced was proven false through new results from the 2016 study.

“Knowing what the risks are across different populations is critical considering that in many cities, such as Boston, the number of heat waves is projected to increase due to climate change,” stated Cedeño-Laurent.

Researchers tracked 44 students over a span of 12 consecutive days during the summer, including a five-day-long heatwave.

About half the students were placed in low-rise buildings without AC. The remaining students were housed in newer, six-story buildings with central AC. A device in each room measured factors including temperature, humidity and noise levels. Students’ sleeping patterns and physical activity were simultaneously tracked with wearable devices.

The students took cognition tests on their smartphones that assessed their reaction times and memory. The first test prompted them to correctly identify the color of displayed words. The second test contained basic math questions.

Students without AC had a 13.4 percent longer reaction time and performed 13.3 percent lower on the math tests when compared with students who had AC.

The most apparent distinction between the two groups occurred when external temperatures cooled down. Temperatures inside the rooms without AC continued to rise even after the heatwave subsided.

The scientists officially concluded they found, “reduced cognitive function during a heat wave among residents of non-air-conditioned buildings.”

The study is featured in PLOS Medicine as part of a special issue highlighting climate change and health.

Brooke Reotutar contributed to this story.