How heat affects the brain

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A heat wave is once again hitting the Northeast, South and Midwest. High temperatures can have an alarming effect on our bodies, increasing the risk of heart attacks, heat stroke and death, particularly among older adults and people with chronic illnesses. But the heat also puts a strain on our brain, compromising our cognitive abilities and making us irritable, impulsive and aggressive.

Numerous studies in laboratory settings have produced results similar to Dr. Cedeño’s research, with cognitive test scores decreasing when scientists increase the temperature in the room. One investigation found that just a four-grade increase – which participants described as still feeling comfortable – led to an average 10% decline in performance on tests of memory, reaction time and executive functioning.

This can have real consequences. R. Jisung Park, an environmental and labor economist at the University of Pennsylvania, examined high school standardized test scores and found that they decreased 0.2 percent for every grade above 72 Fahrenheit. It may not seem like much, but it can be helpful for students taking an exam in a non-air-conditioned room during a 90-degree heat wave.

In another study, Dr. Park found that the hotter-than-average days were during the school year, the worse students performed on a standardized test, especially when the thermometer rose above 80 degrees. He said this could be because increased heat exposure affected student learning throughout the year.

The effect was “more pronounced for low-income and racial minority students,” Dr. Park said, perhaps because they were less likely to have air conditioning, both at school and at home.

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