Numerous cities within the United States are continuing to set record highs. As hot weather carries on, a new Australian study provides insight into how Aboriginal populations have been able to thrive for centuries in scorching conditions.
The Australian National University study finds Aboriginal peoples are not more susceptible to heat-related deaths when compared to non-indigenous groups in the country’s Northern Territory. Researchers believe Aboriginal protective factors like the afternoon nap, or "siesta" may have a role to play.
Few land masses across the world are as sparsely populated as Australia’s Northern Territory. In 1980, the territory had a population of 121,000, including 38,000 Aboriginals. The population grew in 2020 to 246,000, of which 75,000 were Aboriginal. The Northern Territory suffers grueling hot temperatures for most of the year and is the area with the highest amount of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals.
Unlike those in the non-indigenous communities who have access to air conditioning, Aboriginal peoples have had to adapt to their surroundings for generations. Researchers believe Aboriginal groups may be at an advantage in adjusting to hot conditions when compared to their non-indigenous counterparts.
"While cool, air-conditioned spaces offer essential refuge during extremely high temperatures, it is possible that extended periods in air-conditioned spaces may prevent people from adapting to the prevailing climate," study co-author and Associate ANU Professor Aparna Lal said in a university release. "Instead, housing in hot climates should be designed to ensure passive cooling, where people live comfortably within the predominant climate and at the same time require minimal energy for cooling."
Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Territory have homeless rates 12 times the national average, energy insecurity, poor health, and low life expectancy. Despite this, investigators did not witness a disparity in the number of heat-associated deaths compared to non-indigenous groups.
In their findings, researchers note Aboriginal genes may provide a genetic advantage over other populations when dealing with hot weather. Afternoon naps outdoors have also presented Aboriginal peoples with a unique advantage over non-indigenous groups. Researchers believe Aboriginal tools may come in handy as temperatures continue to rise due to climate change.
"As extreme hot temperatures become more common, the most important tool we have to adapt to climate change may be cultural change. It’s time to learn from First Nations people and other societies from the past that used culture as a tool to thrive in hot climates."- Lead author, Simon Quilty, MPhilPH
How else can we stay safe in extreme heat?
According to the National Weather Service, extreme heat is the leading cause of death due to weather in the United States. So far in August, major cities such as Jacksonville, Miami, New Orleans, Austin, and San Antonio experienced record-setting highs. Nix Biosensors CEO and Founder Meridith Cass highlights the importance of staying hydrated to Healthnews.
"The most common recommendation for hydration is 'drinking to thirst' or, essentially, drink when you feel thirsty. Research has shown that this method poses significant risks as athletes and laborers who 'drink to thirst' often consume only half of the fluids lost during exertions, in both hot and cool conditions," Cass said. "In fact, mild hydration is shown up to 80% of the time when athletes simply 'drink to thirst.' To put this into context, at just 2% dehydration, an athlete can lose 10% of their performance ability."
Earlier this year, Nix Biosensors developed a Hydration Biosensor that analyzes sweat through a small patch that sticks to the skin. The sweat data is transferred to the 'pod' using electrodes and pin pads in the sweat patch. The pod analyzes the sweat composition, delivers information to the Nix App in real time, and provides fluid intake recommendations.
The CDC says drinking fluids is the most important step to prevent heat illnesses which cause 702 American deaths each year. For those spending time in the extreme heat, the CDC recommends one cup of water every 15 to 20 minutes. However, Cass notes it is important not to overhydrate.
"Overhydration can dilute the electrolytes in your body and lead to hyponatremia, a dangerous condition where the sodium levels in your body are too low and your cells begin to swell," Cass said. "Without immediate attention, it can lead to nausea, headaches, low blood pressure, muscle weakness, and, in severe cases, seizures, and comas. This condition is all too common, as the symptoms of hyponatremia mimic the feeling of being dehydrated. Because of this, many will reach for water, which exacerbates the condition further. They actually need to cease fluid intake and increase their sodium intake."
As another hot week awaits, don’t forget to keep a water bottle handy. If you have time, maybe try some afternoon shut eye as well.