People can’t think straight without air conditioning during heat waves: Study

Students without AC in a heat wave showed higher reaction times and a reduced memory capacity.

In a recent Harvard study, researchers found that students in dorms without air conditioning fared worse than those with controlled indoor cooling during a heatwave.

Research led by the TH Chan School of Public Health shows the negative effects of sweltering indoor temperatures on young and healthy people, and a need to find more sustainable design solutions to prevent the health impacts of extreme heat.

Jose Guillermo Cedeño-Laurent, lead author of the study, and research fellow at the TH Chan School was quoted as saying to Harvard Press, "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." He added that there was a blind spot in literature of studies with healthy, young adults in natural phenomena like a heat wave, and important considering climate change and the very real possibility of similar effects in cities like Boston, where the study was conducted.

 People can’t think straight without air conditioning during heat waves: Study

Representational image. PTI

The study's results, which were published in PLOS Medicine this week explained how students in the buildings without AC performed worse on cognitive tests than students in the air-conditioned dorms, experiencing a decrease in five different measures of brain function. These included reaction times and working memory, both critical factors in success of young individuals in school or at work. The study also showed that students living in dorms without AC experienced 13.4 percent longer reaction times on a color-word test, and 13.3 percent lower in scores from an addition/subtraction test compared to those with air-conditioned rooms during a heatwave.

The most interesting difference in the brain function between the two groups was found during the period of cooldown after the heatwave subsided, when outdoor temperatures began to subside but indoor temperatures remained elevated in the dormitories without air conditioning.

Joseph Allen, one of the study’s senior authors, said, "Indoor temperatures often continue to rise even after outdoor temperatures subside, giving the false impression that the hazard has passed, when in fact the ‘indoor heat wave’ continues. In regions of the world with predominantly cold climates, buildings were designed to retain heat. These buildings have a hard time shedding heat during hotter summer days created by changing climate, giving rise to indoor heat waves.”

Put together, the data makes a good case for slowed responses in young people exposed to hot weather over a significant duration.

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