Well, we’re definitely in the thick of summer. While I’m a dedicated autumn/winter lover who dreads the heat, I will admit that there are good things about this time of year, especially this year, since the warmer weather means we can finally get out and about with friends and family at BBQs, picnics, and the beach. You might also be excited to get out there, but remember, whatever your feelings are about the soaring temperatures, excessive heat can be dangerous, especially for older adults. As you age, your body doesn’t react to the heat in the same way, and you’re more at risk of heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. That means it’s important to know how to protect yourself when the mercury rises!
Why the Heat Hits Seniors Harder
Excessive heat is no doubt uncomfortable, but it can also be deadly, especially for older adults. In fact, from 1999-2009, almost 40% of all heat-related deaths in the U.S. – nearly 3,000 – were adults over 65. But why is hot weather so much harder on seniors? There are a few reasons for this:
- Adults over 65 actually don’t sweat as much as younger adults do! Sweating is our body’s natural AC, cooling you off both at the surface of your skin and internally, so when this cooling mechanism becomes less efficient, you become more prone to overheating.
- Sensitivity to both heat and cold decrease as you age, but the decreased sensitivity to heat is more intense.
- Changes in the skin, which becomes thinner with age, and the loss of the layer of fat below your skin, which helps provide insulation in younger people, can also contribute to changes in the way your body regulates its temperature.
When you add these natural changes in your body to a variety of health and lifestyle factors, you end up with a recipe for heat-related illnesses. The factors that increase the likelihood of falling victim to heat exhaustion and heat stroke include:
- Dehydration – For some reason, many older adults feel less thirsty than their younger counterparts, and might skip out on getting enough fluid throughout the day. It’s important to note, though, that when you feel thirsty (which usually means you’re just 2% dehydrated) your ability to regulate heat begins to decline, so be sure to sip something cool or eat high-water content fruits and veggies throughout the day!
- Chronic illnesses – This includes heart and kidney diseases, and especially any conditions that affect blood circulation.
- Prescription medications – Check with your doctor to see if your medications might reduce sweating or have a diuretic effect.
- Salt-restricted diets
- Overdressing – Again, you might be less sensitive to the heat as you age, but you still need to dress for the weather!
- Lack of airflow or access to air conditioning
Signs of Heat-Related Illnesses
Because older adults are so much more likely to experience heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke, it’s vital that you know the signs and symptoms of them, as well as what to do if you experience these symptoms.
- Heat exhaustion – As you begin to overheat, heat exhaustion can set in. Early symptoms include:
- Cramps in your abdomen, arms or legs
- Swelling in your ankles
- Muscle spasms
As heat exhaustion progresses, symptoms could worsen and include:
- Feeling faint/fainting
If you experience any of these symptoms:
- Get to a cool place
- Loosen tight clothing
- Put on cool, damp clothing
- Drink water
- Get medical help if you are nauseous, vomiting, or have fainted
- Heat stroke – Heat exhaustion can progress to a more serious condition known as heat stroke, which is caused when your internal body temperature rises much faster than it’s lowered naturally. Heat exhaustion can become heat stroke alarmingly quickly, sometimes within 15 minutes, so know the signs! Call 911 if you or someone you’re with experiences the following symptoms:
- High body temperature (usually around 104)
- The absence of sweating
- Loss of consciousness
- Changes in behavior
- Strong, rapid pulse OR slow, weak pulse
- Dry skin or flushed skin
Avoid Heat-Related Illnesses!
There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of overheating and ending up in a heat-related emergency! When the temperatures out there start to sizzle or the heat and humidity combined start to make you feel like you’re in a steam room, remember to:
- Dress appropriately in clothing that is lightweight, loose-fitting, light-colored, and made of natural fibers like cotton.
Take cool showers or baths to refresh yourself.
- Schedule outdoor physical activities or exercise during early morning hours or late evening hours when temperatures are relatively cooler. On very hot days, only exercise indoors in the AC.
- Limit the time you spend exerting yourself if the weather is particularly humid, as you’ll be even less able to cool your body by sweating in these conditions.
- Check the weather report, and stay in if it’s going to be especially hot and humid.
- If you are staying in, find ways to cool off your environment: turn on the AC, or use fans and open windows that are across from each other to create a cross-breeze. Close curtains and blinds to keep out excess sunlight. If you don’t have AC and are in the middle of an intense heatwave, you should get yourself to an air-conditioned environment if at all possible – you can contact your local health department to find out locations of air-conditioned shelters if you have nowhere else to go.
- Don’t turn on your stove or oven to cook – a super hot day is the perfect time to treat yourself to take-out!
- Drink plenty of hydrating fluids, like water and juices, while avoiding those that can dehydrate you, like alcohol and caffeinated drinks. You can also eat fruits like watermelon, cantaloupe, strawberries, peaches and cucumbers.
We’ve still got a lot of summer ahead of us, so enjoy it! Just remember that too much of a good thing – even summer (well, if that’s the kind of thing that you’re into) – can be dangerous if you don’t know the risks and take steps to protect yourself. So stay safe – and cool – out there!