Here's How Hot Weather Hurts Your Ability to Think Straight

Whether you're old or young

So far, this summer is turning out to be a hot one. And if the oppressive humidity and scorching temperatures have been making you feel inordinately sluggish and scatter-brained, don't worry, you're not alone. And you've got science on your side. A recent study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, has found evidence that indicates people's cognitive abilities are diminished by extreme heat.

The researchers asked 24 students who lived in air-conditioned dormitories and 20 who lived in ones without an AC to take a series of cognitive tests during a heat wave, and found that those without the respite of the AC performed worse on the tests. Specifically, students in buildings without AC experienced 13.4 percent longer reaction times on color-word tests, and 13.3 percent lower addition/subtraction test scores. Not only were the answers of those who lived in AC-equipped dorms more accurate, but they were also able to complete the tests faster.

The study is unique in that it focused on how extreme heat affects the cognitive abilities of healthy, young individual.

"Most of the research on the health effects of heat has been done in vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, creating the perception that the general population is not at risk from heat waves," Jose Guillermo Cedeño-Laurent, research fellow at Harvard Chan School and lead author of the study, said. "To address this blind spot, we studied healthy students living in dorms as a natural intervention during a heat wave in Boston. Knowing what the risks are across different populations is critical considering that in many cities, such as Boston, the number of heat waves is projected to increase due to climate change."

The study was also unique in that most research on this topic focuses on outdoor temperatures. Given that Americans spend roughly 90 percent of their time indoors, it's crucial to consider the impact of the climate within our own homes.

When it comes to exercise, hot weather can have certain weight-loss benefits, provided you stay plenty hydrated while working out. When it comes to sleeping, however, several studies have found that cooler temperatures result in a better night of rest. And, as we all know by now, sleeping affects everything from your energy levels to your weight to your ability to function.

While the ideal solution to a heat wave is an AC, people who are having trouble thinking straight during a heat wave might also consider taking a well-timed nap, as an increasing body of research shows that napping can give the brain a real restorative boost. And for more on that, learn why Science Says This Is the Length of a Perfect Nap.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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