TUESDAY, Aug. 11, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Global warming may ultimately rain on everyone's parade, but new research suggests that major thunderstorms are already wreaking some havoc on the respiratory health of seniors.
That's because atmospheric changes that precede storms increase the risk that older people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) could develop breathing problems serious enough to send them to the hospital.
The conclusion follows a 14-year-long investigation -- described as the largest of its kind -- that tracked stormy weather and emergency room visits among more than 46 million Medicare recipients.
"Changes in the atmosphere that lead up to thunderstorms, which includes increased temperatures and levels of particulate matter, coincided with increased emergency visits for breathing problems among seniors," said study author Dr. Christopher Worsham. He's a research fellow in the pulmonary and critical care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Particulate matter is very small particles in the air caused by fires, auto or industrial emissions, as well as dust and dirt.
These small particles can make their way deep into the lungs and irritate airways, aggravating asthma or COPD, Worsham noted.
His team pored over nationwide data collected between 1999 and 2012, looking for weather events defined by the presence of lightning, increased precipitation and above-average wind speed.
The researchers also examined Medicare records for nearly 46.6 million patients (average age: 77) over the same time period.
Just over 10% had asthma, and 26.5% had COPD. Nearly 7% had both.
Over a decade and a half, roughly 822,000 major storms struck the United States. During that time, there were more than 22 million ER visits for breathing problems.
Stacking the data side by side, researchers found that respiratory-related ER visits rose in the days before and after storms.
The biggest surge occurred the day before a storm actually hit, the study found. That observation aligned with the way storms tend to play out: Temperatures and particulate levels rise the day before a deluge, then taper off during the storm itself and the days to follow.
Based on population data, Worsham and his colleagues estimated that thunderstorms triggered an extra 52,000 ER visits for respiratory distress.
Because the study focused on seniors, it's not clear whether thunderstorms might have a similar effect on younger patients with a history of chronic asthma and other breathing difficulties. It's also unclear how weather patterns may evolve over time.
But scientists expect thunderstorms to increase in intensity as global temperatures rise. And that, Worsham said, suggests that the study's most important observation is clear: "Environment impacts our health."
That thought was seconded by Dr. Meredith McCormack, medical director of the pulmonary function lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and a volunteer spokeswoman for the American Lung Association. She reviewed the study and said the findings break ground.
"While air pollution and increases in exposure to heat have been linked to exacerbations of asthma and COPD previously, considering the rapid changes in these conditions that occur in advance of thunderstorms is novel," McCormack said, adding that the findings offer insight into the potential effects of changes in the weather.
"As climate change is associated with [an] increase in extreme weather events, the findings underscore the importance of adaptive strategies for those at highest risk," McCormack added.
The findings appear in the Aug. 10 online edition of JAMA Internal Medicine.