How Heat Affects Brain Health

We’re expecting a hot summer here in Northwest Arkansas! Excessive heat can have health effects, especially for more vulnerable populations like young children. High temperatures can also affect brain health. How can you prepare for the hot weather and stay safe?

Heat and the brain

Our brains don’t function as well in very hot weather. Studies of students and of office workers have shown that we just don’t think as clearly in very high temperatures. Both productivity and performance are affected by heat. 

One study found that emergency rooms saw more traffic in hot weather from people with mental health disorders ranging from schizophrenia to dementia. A review of the literature showed that high temperatures make it harder for people to perform complex mental tasks. This affected daily life in some surprising ways. For example, hot weather leads to riskier behavior in workplaces since workers are less able to stay attentive and think clearly about the need for safety measures. 

On an 80-degree day, people’s ability to make wise decisions may be lessened. At 90 degrees, people may think less clearly and show poor judgment. 

Heat illness and the brain

High temperatures are not good for our brains, but heat illness is even worse.

Heatstroke and heat exhaustion can have a variety of health consequences. Some of the common symptoms of heat stroke are neurological:

  • cognitive dysfunction, which may include confusion or loss of memory
  • disorientation
  • delerium
  • agitation
  • trouble speaking clearly
  • seizures
  • unsteadiness
  • lethargy
  • coma

Heatstroke can be fatal; mortality rates of 40-65% have been reported. Some of the effects on the brain may be the result of dehydration, more than the heat alone, but there is evidence that heat can cause cell damage in the brain. The brain can respond to heat illness much the same way it responds to high fevers.

How to take care of your brain in hot weather

Now that we know that heat can have dire consequences for our brains, what should we do about it?

One of the most important things is simply to take it seriously. We might complain about the heat, but often we think of hot days as an inconvenience, not a danger. Check temperature forecasts and plan ahead to respond to extreme heat. Especially when there is a heat advisory, you should try to stay cool:

  • Go outdoors (for exercise or outdoor work, for example) early in the day while it is cooler.
  • Stay in the shade as much as possible. 
  • Take advantage of air conditioning. 
  • Take it easy in hot weather, saving active sports or work for cooler times.

You should also be sure to stay hydrated. Some studies indicate that subjects who drink plenty of water experience fewer negative effects from high heat than those who do not stay hydrated. 

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