Summers in most of the United States are hot, and they may be getting even hotter as the global climate comes under threat of big changes. Protecting people from too much heat exposure takes many forms and typically ends up being a combination of air control, hydration, and breaks from the heat. For elderly people, especially those whose bodies may have become more vulnerable due to chronic illness (such as diabetes or heart disease) or who take medications that make it harder for the body to regulate internal temperature, the heat of the summer poses an even greater threat: increased mortality. The heat can kill older people whose bodies are threatened by other health complications if they do not have ways to keep cool during the hottest parts of the year. Elderly people are vulnerable to death by heat stroke every year.
Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke
Recognizing and treating heat exhaustion can prevent heat stroke, the deadly way heat can claim the lives of older people. According to the Mayo Clinic, heavy sweating and rapid pulse are the main symptoms. People experiencing heat exhaustion may also feel faint or weak. The goal for caregivers is to recognize these symptoms and act quickly, which will prevent life-threatening heatstroke. Heatstroke occurs when heat exhaustion has stressed the body to the breaking point, and it causes sufferers to lose consciousness. Without proper hydration and temperature control, organs overheat and fail and the body can, simply, give up under the strain of regulating its own temperature.
If a senior has a body temperature over 103 degrees Fahrenheit, is hot but is suddenly unable to sweat, has an extremely elevated pulse, and experiences dizziness, nausea, or a severe headache, they are under serious danger of experiencing heat stroke. The person should be taken immediately to a cool place and provided with lots of water. Caregivers or family members may also need to call emergency health services to check on the elderly person before these symptoms cause permanent, life-threatening damage.
Preventing Heat-Related Illnesses
If an elderly person has a pre-existing chronic condition that stresses his or her body during daily activities, family members/caregivers should plan ahead and take precautions during hot months. Strenuous physical activity in the heat should be avoided by the elderly one, and if the person must or wants to go outside, he or she should be guided to shade and provided with lots of cool (but not ice-cold!) water. Frozen ice packs carried in a cooler can be utilized to rapidly lower body temperature when placed on the forehead, neck, and chest. Such packs are inexpensive and readily available. Any time an elderly person is outside in the heat or even moving around inside a house, he or she should take regular breaks, allowing the heart rate to decrease to normal or almost-normal at rest. This gives the body a chance to catch up and regulate its temperature. Also, alcohol should be avoided in the heat. Not only does it cause dehydration, but it can limit the body’s natural ability to regulate its own temperature or mask symptoms that would otherwise lead a person to remove himself or herself from the heat.
At home, family members and caregivers should make sure all elderly loved ones have access to cool water, ice, and cool air. If possible, let fresh air in and be circulated by fans or use air conditioning. This will allow an elderly person to breathe in cool air and sweat less. Public places, like libraries, restaurants, or shopping malls usually have robust air conditioning. These can be great places for seniors to gather and socialize. Some cities and towns offer “cooling stations” as well, where people can gather to drink in the cool of a strong air conditioning system.
A study released in 2012 noted that air pollution aggravates symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, so seniors in urban areas should be especially wary of high temperatures.
The Centers for Disease Control recommend that, especially during the summer, it is good to check on seniors once or twice a day to ensure that they are comfortable and not overheated. Caregivers and family members do well to have a plan in place to help seniors seek cooler temperatures if they need to, even if that means taking a trip out of the home and into cool public spaces.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (July 13, 2015). Heat Stress in Older Adults. Emergency Preparedness and Response. CDC.gov. Available at http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/older-adults-heat.asp. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
Mayo Clinic Staff. Heat exhaustion. Diseases and Conditions. MayoClinic.org. Available at http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heat-exhaustion/basics/definition/con-20033366. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
Zanobetti, Antonella, O’Neill, Marie S., Gronlund, Carina J., and Schwartz, Joel D. (March 8, 2012). Summer temperature variability and long-term survival among elderly people with chronic disease. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (17): 6608-6613. Available at http://www.pnas.org/content/109/17/6608.full. Retrieved July 24, 2016.