How to help the human body adapt to extreme temperatures

Behind the thick metal door, Jane Twomey, an energetic sexagenarian with bright eyes, barely dares to move. Cables, attached to electrodes, probes and other capsules run along his body. Every five minutes, a scientist comes to refresh it by spraying water at eighteen different points with a cheap spray bottle. When she finally tries to open her book, the pages dance in the air projected by the fan installed in front of her. In the thermal chamber of about twenty square meters, the temperature reaches 45°C. “I didn’t think it would be so restrictive, but whatever, I’m happy to be here. This type of study is extremely important for our future.”, slips the retired obstetrician, who is participating in an experiment in the laboratory of Ollie Jay, in Sydney, Australia. His team is at the forefront of studying the impact of extreme heat on the human body.

Jane Twomey takes part in an experiment where she is subjected to three hours of intense heat at 45°C.  At the Heat and Health Research Incubator of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Sydney (Australia), on November 16, 2022.
During the three-hour intense heat experience, Jane Twomey is cooled with only a fan, a spray of water every five minutes, and the occasional glass of water.  In Sydney (Australia), on November 16, 2022.

During the years 2017-2021, the number of heat-related deaths increased by 68% worldwide compared to the period 2000-2004, particularly at the two extremes of life, among those over 65 and those under 1 year old. In France, the various heat waves in the summer of 2022 caused the death of at least 2,800 people, making it the deadliest summer since the heat wave of 2003. Climate change has many “serious repercussions” on “worldwide health”alerted, on October 26, a hundred experts in a report published by the British journal The Lancet.

But what are the exact consequences of heat stress on organisms on an individual and collective scale? What are the best protection strategies to deal with it? Can our bodies adapt to higher temperatures? These are some of the issues that scientists around the world are currently working on, including Ollie Jay, director of the Heat and Health Research Incubator at the University of Sydney Medical School.

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“We urgently need science-based strategies to protect the most vulnerable”, explains the one who systematically favors the cheapest solutions, accessible to all and low in energy consumption, such as the electric fan. In the thermal chamber of his laboratory, custom-built in 2021, he studies in particular the impact of high temperatures on the elderly, a public among the most vulnerable to increasing heat waves.

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