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Climate Temperature Troubles With Older Adults: What You Need to Know

IMAGE News of seniors succumbing to summer's sizzling heat or winter's biting cold seems to surprise people all across the country. 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. Medications, chronic ailments, and entrenched habits contribute to increased risk of a heat disorder called hyperthermia, and a cold disorder called hypothermia .
Some physical changes associated with aging put us at higher risk. A sense of security or finances also adds to the problem. For example, some seniors may not feel safe opening windows. Others hesitate to use the air conditioner or heater due to the cost of electricity.

Body Temperature Regulation

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, they 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 more sedentary lifestyle, they do not produce as much body heat. Medications, illicit 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:
  • Humidity hinders the cooling process because perspiration does not evaporate as quickly.
  • Conditions that alter blood circulation, like heart disease, high blood pressure and blood vessel disease have an impact on temperature control.
  • Diuretics, or water pills, increase the risk of dehydration.

The Dangers of Extreme Heat

A body that stops cooling can create a medical emergency.
  • Heat cramps—These are painful muscle spasms after strenuous activity; they can also be a sign of heat exhaustion .
  • Heat exhaustion—This occurs when the body becomes too hot. Thirst, weakness, fatigue, nausea, and profuse sweating serve as warnings. If treatment is delayed, heat exhaustion can advance to deadly heat stroke.
  • Heat stroke—Symptoms of this potentially lethal rise in body temperature include confusion, bizarre behaviors, a strong, rapid pulse, dry, flushed skin with no sweat, and headache or nausea.
First aid for heat-related illnesses includes:
  • Moving to a cool, shady place
  • Offering cool liquids, if able to swallow
  • Immersing the person in ice water or applying ice-cold towels on the person's body, particularly to the head, trunk, and extremities
  • Calling for medical help

Preventing Heat-Related Illnesses

Several actions can prevent these heat emergencies:
It is important to stay hydrated. When the weather becomes hot, drink water 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:
  • Keep your house cool by using an air conditioner.
  • If you do not have air conditioning, cover windows to block sunlight. Also, visit places that are air conditioned, like city-run cooling centers, the mall, or the library.
  • Do not go out during the hottest part of the day.
  • Wear white, short-sleeve, loose-fitting, natural-fiber clothing.
  • Wear a wide-brim hat outside to provide shade.
  • Take a cool shower.
  • Cook with the microwave rather than the oven or stove.
  • Pace your activities.
Make arrangements for someone to check on you a couple of times a day.

The Dangers of Extreme Cold

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. Alcohol expands blood vessels near the surface and lets needed warmth escape. Do not rub the person's skin.

Preventing Cold-Related Illnesses

Take these steps to stay warm when the days turn cold:
  • When you are home:
    • Keep the heat on.
    • Wear multiple layers, including long underwear.
    • Use extra blankets.
  • When you are going out:
    • Wear gloves, a hat, and several layers.
    • Plan your trips wisely. Stay indoors on cold, windy days.
Remember, never use your stove or oven for heat.
Make arrangements for someone to check on you a couple of times a day.

Be Prepared for Temperature Changes

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 medications. Play it safe—wear seasonal clothing, modify habits, and create a buddy system to check on each other.

RESOURCES

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov

National Institute of Health—Senior Health http://nihseniorhealth.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Health Canada http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

Public Health Agency of Canada http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca

References

Bouchama A, Knochel JP. Heat stroke. N Engl J Med. 2002; 346:1978.

Bross MH, Nash BT, Carlton FB. Heat emergencies. Am Fam Physician. 1994; 50:389.

Extreme heat: a prevention guide to promote your personal health and safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/heat%5Fguide.asp. Updated July 31, 2009. Accessed March 4, 2014.

Heat exhaustion. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated August 22, 2013. Accessed March 4, 2014.

Hyperthermia: too hot for your health. National Institute on Aging website. Available at: http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/hyperthermia. Updated February 13, 2014. Accessed March 4, 2014.

Hypothermia: a cold weather hazard. National Institute on Aging website. Available at: http://www.nia.nih.gov/newsroom/2011/02/hypothermia-cold-weather-hazard. Published February 2, 2011. Accessed March 4, 2014.

Hyperthermia: a hot weather hazard for older people. National Institute on Aging website. Available at: http://www.nia.nih.gov/newsroom/2011/02/hypothermia-cold-weather-hazard. Published February 13, 2014. Accessed March 4, 2014.

Hypothermia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated November 19, 2012. Accessed March 4, 2014.

Ranhoff AH. Accidental hypothermia in the elderly. Int J Circumpolar Health. 2000; 59:255.

Smith JE. Cooling methods used in the treatment of exertional heat illness. Br J Sports Med. 2005;39(8):503-507.

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