Excessive Heat Poses Risks for Older Adults

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

For most people, extremely hot weather is a bit of a nuisance and fodder for light conversation. For elderly people, hot weather can be deadly.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “people aged 65-plus have been several times more likely to die from heat-related cardiovascular disease than the general population.”

“Our bodies are designed to maintain a steady temperature, but in extreme temperatures, the body’s thermoregulation may fail,” said Natina Reed, a nurse specializing in gerontology at St. Joseph Health.

“Heat exposure may cause a variety of conditions in older adults as their body’s internal temperature rises,” Reed said. “This can include heat stroke, heat cramps, heat exhaustion or syncope related to overheating. These can quickly become life threatening conditions in older adults. It is important to be aware of medications that may create an increased sensitivity to sunlight as well, as this can increase risk of burning, thus overheating.”

Reed said that the signs of overheating can include painful muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, racing pulse, thirst, lack of sweating, increased anxiety or headache.

So why are older adults more prone to heat exhaustion and heat stroke?

“Our body’s ability to adapt to extremes in weather can change,” said geriatrician Sharon Brangman, chief of the department of geriatrics at Upstate University Hospital. “It can take a long time to feel thirsty, even though you’re dehydrated.”

She said that sensitivity for heat worsens the more dehydrated the person becomes; that’s why sufficient hydration represents the first step in combating heatstroke.

Some older adults take diuretic medication. They should discuss with their doctors about adjusting the dose during hot weather.

Drinking caffeinated beverages like cola, tea or coffee or drinking  alcohol tend to further dehydrate people since they are diuretics.

“I encourage older adults to have a drink of water even if they’re not thirsty, to keep hydration going,” Brangman said.

For people who don’t like the taste of water, adding slices of lemon or cucumber can flavor it.

Staying indoors can help reduce the effects of extreme heat. In addition to cooling the air, air conditioning reduces humidity, which can make breathing easier.

For those with a single window air conditioner, Brangman suggested having the conditioner in a room where the most time is spent.

“I tell people if they don’t have an air conditioner, go to the movies or the mall, or the library,” Brangman said.

Churches and senior centers also usually air conditioned, and some of these organizations can arrange for pick-up if requested, she said.

Physician Az Tahir practices holistic integrative medicine at High Point Wellness in Syracuse. He said that for seniors who don’t have or don’t want an air conditioner, an “Indian air conditioner” can help. Wring out a wet cloth and hang it in front of a fan so it can blow cooled air.

“Use wet towels to keep the skin and head cool,” he said. “Keep your legs in cool water with Epsom salts in it. It helps keep the body cool. You can take more frequent showers.”

Avoid outdoor activity during hot part of the day.”

For example, garden very early in the morning or closer to sunset or consider hiring temporary help for weeding, pruning and mowing.

Exercise in an air conditioned environment or go swimming. Many communities open their school pools for free recreational use.


Free AC For Qualified People

People who need an air conditioner but cannot afford one may be eligible to receive up to $800 in help purchasing and installing a unit through the HEAP Cooling Assistance benefit through Aug. 31 or until funding runs out. Visit http://otda.ny.gov/programs/heap/contacts to find your county’s contacts.

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