News of seniors succumbing to summer's sizzling heat sends shock waves across the country, but chilly air can prove just as deadly for older adults. How does aging alter your ability to endure seasonal extremes? Withstanding hot and cold weather and regulating body temperature become more challenging as people grow older. Medicines, chronic ailments, and entrenched habits contribute to increased risk of heat disorder (hyperthermia) and cold disorder (hypothermia).
Some physical changes associated with aging put us at higher risk. Lifelong habits and finances add to the problem. For example, some seniors may not feel safe opening windows and hesitate to use the air conditioner or heater due to the cost of electricity.
The body primarily cools through perspiration. As moisture on the skin evaporates, the body cools. Core temperature remains stable as long as fluid and salt are replenished. Older people, though, may lose their sense of thirst. By the time an older person is feeling thirsty, he may already be quite dehydrated. If severe dehydration occurs, the body tries to conserve fluid loss by ceasing sweating, which leads to a rise in the core body temperature.
In cold temperatures, one way that the body attempts to keep warm is by shivering. But, when a person ages, there are many conditions that can affect the body's ability to remain warm. Thyroid conditions, circulatory ailments, and dementia are some examples. In addition, if older adults live a sedentary lifestyle, they do not produce as much body heat. Over-the-counter medicines, prescription medicines, drugs, and alcohol can also impede a person's ability to stay warm.
Other factors that may interfere with the body's ability to regulate temperature include:
A body that stops cooling can create a medical emergency.
First aid for heat-related illnesses includes:
Several actions can prevent these heat emergencies:
Stay hydrated! When the weather becomes hot, drink throughout the day. Avoid beverages that contain alcohol and caffeine.
If you have a condition and your doctor instructed you to limit your fluid intake, make sure that you talk to your doctor so that you have a plan to stay hydrated during the summer heat.
Take these steps to stay cool:
A drop in core body temperature can be deadly. Symptoms include confusion; sleepiness; slow, slurred speech; a weak, slow pulse; extremity stiffness; and slow reactions. Shivering may or may not be present. Check your body temperature with a thermometer. If it's below 96ºF (35.6ºC), call for medical help.
To help someone with hypothermia until emergency medical help arrives, keep the person warm with additional blankets or your own body. If the person can swallow, offer warm liquids but no alcohol, which expands blood vessels near the surface and lets needed warmth escape. Do not rub the person's skin.
Take these steps to stay warm when the days turn cold:
Aging makes regulating body temperature more challenging during hot and cold spells. Seasonal temperature changes and activities once taken for granted pose potential problems with declining reserves, chronic conditions, and medicines. Play it safe—wear seasonal clothing, modify habits, and create a buddy system to check on each other.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
National Institute of Health—Senior Health
Public Health Agency of Canada
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Last reviewed May 2012 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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