Absence of Air Conditioning in Buildings Can Affect Your Mind

2018-07-16

Dwelling inside buildings with no air conditioning installed during very high temperatures can drastically impact your mental capacity in a negative fashion.

A new study conducted by a team of researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston reveals that, contrary to the popular belief, not only the elderly are affected by hot weather, but young and healthy adults as well.

According to the scientists, this study was more than necessary, as previous research in this matter only focused on the health impacts provoked by heat on vulnerable populations such as the elderly, thus giving the false impression that the general population was not exposed to any sort of risk coming from the heat waves. In order to shed some light over this uncharted territory, they studied two groups of young, healthy students living in dormitories throughout a heat wave in Boston.

Learning what the precise risks are across different populations is vital if we take into consideration that in a good number of cities, like Boston for instance, the frequency of heat waves is expected to rise due to climate change.

The study centered on 44 students in their early 20s and teen years living in dormitories, out of which 20 lived inside an older building constructed between 1930-1950 that has never benefited from air conditioning installation before, while the other 24 lived in air conditioned buildings constructed in the early 1990s.

Each student’s room was monitored with the help of several devices that tracked a variety of elements and conditions such as the CO2 levels, noise levels, humidity, and last but not least – temperature. The students also used wearable devices to track their sleep patterns as well as their physical activity.

The time span for the study was 12 consecutive days. The first five days implied seasonable weather, the next five consisted in a heat wave, and in the remaining two there was a cool off.

In the course of those 12 days, students were asked to solve two cognition tests on their smartphones every morning right after waking up.

The purpose of the initial test was to measure cognitive swiftness and repressive control (in other words the capacity to focus on relevant stimuli while another irrelevant one is also present) and required the taker to accurately identify the color of the word presented on the screen.

The second test was used to analyze cognitive speed and working memory and resided in basic mathematical questions.

The results pointed out that, on average, the students living in dorms where air conditioning was present outperformed those who lived in buildings where air conditioning was absent during the heat wave by roughly 13%.

The results pointed out that, on average, the students living in dorms where air conditioning was present outperformed those who lived in buildings where air conditioning was absent during the heat wave by roughly 13%. The students who benefited from AC systems not only had better reaction time and faster responses, but their answers were more precise too.

To make it even more interesting, the most notable difference in cognitive function and mental ability between the two groups was observed during the cool off period, when the indoor temperatures remained high in the buildings with no air conditioning, despite the outside temperatures going down.

“Indoor temperature values usually continue to rise even after outdoor temperatures go down, giving the false feeling that the worst has passed, when in reality the ‘indoor heat wave’ persists”, said Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science and co-director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard Chan School and one of the study’s senior authors. “In parts of the world with cold climates for most of the time, buildings were specially designed to retain heat. These constructions have a tough time releasing heat during the hot days of summer created by the changing climate, giving rise to indoor heat waves.”

Scientists concluded that high temperatures can indeed have a profound impact even on young people’s minds and bodies, so the risk determined by a heat wave shouldn’t only be considered when speaking about the older populations.