Image of Anupam B. Jena, M.D.
Anupam B. Jena, M.D.

Emergency respiratory care visits increase among older Medicare beneficiaries in the days surrounding a thunderstorm, according to a new study from Harvard Medical School.

Investigators collected county-level atmospheric and lightning data for the contiguous United States from 1999 through 2012. The data were analyzed alongside insurance claims and comorbidity data from Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries older than age 65. 

Their analysis showed that visits to an emergency department for respiratory problems were highest among older adults when storm-related temperature and particulate matter concentrations rose. In a population of about 38 million older Americans, this accounted for 52,000 additional respiratory emergency department visits during the 14-year study period — all in the three or more days surrounding major storms, they estimated.

The link between storms and respiratory distress was particularly notable among people with asthma and/or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In fact, previous studies have shown an association between common chronic respiratory conditions and rising temperatures and particulate matter concentrations in the Medicare population, reported Anupam B. Jena, M.D., Ph.D., of Harvard, and colleagues from the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“[This] may contribute to strain on the healthcare system as storm activity increases with rising global temperatures,” the researchers concluded.

The study results were published online Monday in a JAMA Internal Medicine research letter.