Many retirees grow weary of snow and ice, choosing to move to warmer climes where they can enjoy the outdoors more often and it’s easier to get around. According to sources, more than 80 percent of the estimated 12,000 Americans who die of heat-related causes each year are over age 60. The body’s ability to respond to heat changes as we age, sometimes in response to chronic medical conditions and treatment, so taking precautions to avoid heat stress should be top of mind especially in summer.
Even in more northern venues where summer is shorter, unsafe temperatures can result in a host of conditions known collectively as hyperthermia. These include heat stroke, heat edema (swelling in the feet and ankles), heat syncope (light headedness after exercising in the heat), heat cramps and heat exhaustion. In fact, it’s not only seniors but athletes who work out strenuously and/or for prolonged periods of time in high temperatures who are at risk. But seniors may also have trouble regulating body temperature in any environment, so extra steps to ensure they stay cool are essential at this time of year.
Causes of Unstable Body Temperature in Older Adults
First, what accounts for unstable body temperature in older people? The National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, reports issues may include poor blood circulation and inefficient sweat glands as body functions begin to slow down. High blood pressure and other conditions that necessitate salt-restricted diets are also gateways to heat sensitivity, as is reduced sweating caused by sedatives, tranquilizers, some heart and blood pressure medications, and diuretics. What many people fail to take into account is that diuretics do not necessarily come in pill form: caffeine and alcohol are two common culprits, so limiting their consumption can go a long way in preventing dehydration. In general dehydration is not uncommon in seniors who may not think about drinking sufficient fluids each day, so keeping that pitcher or water bottle handy and availing yourself of it is a big step toward mitigating heat stress.
Precautions Seniors Should Take During Hot Weather
- We’ve just talked about adequate fluid intake, which cannot be over-emphasized. Medical professionals advise not waiting until you feel thirsty to drink, as at that point dehydration has often started.
- Staying in air-conditioned spaces is also important. If your home or apartment does not have air conditioning, spending time in cooled venues such as museums, libraries, shopping malls, restaurants, movie theaters, etc. can take a bite out of the hottest part of the day. Also, you can contact your local health department, police or fire station to find a cooling center near you, especially during heat waves. Experts caution against relying strictly on fans to cool down a space in hot weather, as all they do is blow the heat (and humidity) around. Used in conjunction with window air conditioners, however, they can be useful in circulating and pushing cooled air out a bit farther in a larger space.
- Taking several cool showers or baths a day—something people did before air conditioning was available—can help keep body temperature down. A damp, refrigerated cloth kept on the back of the neck and swapped out with another cloth every 30 minutes can help in between.
- Don’t use the stove or oven. Even heating something up for just a few minutes can raise the temperature indoors. Opt instead for healthy, protein-packed salads that include lots of water-dense fruits and vegetables. Among them are cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, strawberries, peaches, papayas, grapes, lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. Add sliced fruit to bottled water, plain or carbonated, for a tasty cooling treat without the sugar often found in commercial products.
With vigilance and proper precautions taken, heat-related incidents and fatalities among seniors can be prevented. This makes summer the season of celebration and relaxation it was always intended to be — no matter what your age!
“How Seniors Can Stay Safe in Hot Summer Weather,” written by Beth Herman, Amada blog contributor.