Excessive heat kills more people each year, mostly seniors 65 or older, than floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, lightening, or earthquakes.
Summer’s hot weather can be a welcome relief from the cold winter months, but it can also pose a threat to older people. As people age, their ability to regulate heat becomes compromised, making them more prone to injury and illness from hot weather. A number of factors can increase seniors’ susceptibility to hyperthermia, an abnormally high body temperature that can lead to heat stroke. Among these are decreased perspiration, dehydration, alcohol use, medications, poor blood circulation in the skin, and obesity (or anorexia). What many seniors and their families may not know is that chronic conditions can also substantially increase older adults’ risk to heat sensitivity.
Seniors who are managing heart disease with salt-restricted diets or medications that reduce sodium levels in the body, for example, are at a much higher risk for heat stress. It is important, though, that older adults with heart disease not stop taking their medications or start taking salt supplements. Rather, they should speak with their doctors to come up with a plan for avoiding heat stress during the summer months.
Older adults with diabetes face additional problems with heat as well. High temperatures can cause dangerous imbalances in blood sugar levels so that the senior may experience either low (hypoglycemia) or high (hyperglycemia) blood sugar. Diabetics should speak with their doctors about regulating their blood sugar during the summer months. Keeping insulin that requires refrigeration on hand and sufficiently cool can be a challenge too, but cooling packs can help. Dehydration is also a greater risk for diabetics, so drinking plenty of fluids is important.
Seniors with other medical problems, such as lung disease, kidney disease, or any other illness that causes general illness or fever, and those taking multiple medications should be extra vigilant in the summer months as all of these factors can inhibit the body’s ability to regulate heat. Dressing in cool, lightweight clothing; taking frequent breaks in cool, air-conditioned locations; drinking plenty of fluids while avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and sugary drinks; wearing well-ventilated shoes; and scheduling outdoor activities during the cooler hours of the day are steps seniors and other adults can take to prevent heat injuries.
Families and friends can help keep an eye on older adults during the summer months and assist if they notice the person is displaying symptoms of heat exhaustion. Symptoms can include headaches; heavy sweating; rapid breathing; dizziness or fainting; weak, rapid pulse; cold, moist skin; chills; muscle cramps; nausea and/or vomiting; and confusion. Medical professionals should be contacted immediately if these symptoms appear, and the person should be moved to a cool location, mist with cool water, and given fluids to drink until help arrives. Families who are concerned about seniors living alone can hire professional caregivers to help the senior. Caregivers can not only assist seniors with daily tasks, meal preparation, and transportation but also be the eyes and ears for the family, noticing if something is not right and if the senior may need medical help. For more information on how professional caregivers can help seniors with chronic conditions or those who need assistance around the house, contact your local Comfort Keepers® office today.
American Heart Association. (n.d.). Protect your heart in the heat. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/MyHeartandStrokeNews/Protect-Your-Heart-in-the-Heat_UCM_423817_Article.jsp.
Calvin, K. (July 11, 2013). Advice for older people on staying safe in hot weather. National Institute on Aging. Retrieved from http://www.nia.nih.gov/newsroom/2013/07/advice-older-people-staying-safe-hot-weather.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (May 31, 2012.). Extreme heat prevention guide – Part 1. Retrieved from http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/heat_guide-page-2.asp.
Diabetes.co.uk. (n.d.). Diabetes and hot weather – Staying safe in the heat. Retrieved from http://www.diabetes.co.uk/diabetes-and-hot-weather.html.
University of Cincinnati College of Nursing. (July 2011). Summer heat safety. Retrieved from http://nursing.uc.edu/centers/aging_with_dignity/exploring_aging/gero_gems/summer_heat_safety.html.