Extreme Heat and Tips to Stay Safe

I work for a county health department where we see individuals affected from heat-related illnesses. Can you provide information on the effects of extreme heat on older adults, and what they can do to guard against this risk?

Most people do not realize that extreme heat kills more people in the U.S. than hurricanes and tornadoes combined. While extreme heat can be deadly for anyone, older adults are uniquely vulnerable due to three key factors: biological changes that occur with age, higher rates of age-related diseases and greater use of medications that can alter the body's response to heat. Here are some tips to gauge the risk of a heat-related illness for individuals in your community.

How Heat Affects Seniors

The human body has two main mechanisms to cool itself: sweating and increasing blood flow to the skin. In older adults, both of those processes are compromised. Seniors sweat less and have decreased circulation compared with younger individuals.

Chronic health conditions that are more common in older adults, most notably cardiovascular disease and diabetes, can also exacerbate these issues. A compromised heart will struggle to pump sufficient blood, further reducing blood flow to the skin. If the nerves are affected in individuals with diabetes, the body might not receive the message that it needs to start cooling itself by sweating.

As people age, their sense of thirst diminishes, leading them to drink less. In hot conditions, that can cause them to become dehydrated faster. In addition, some older adults, particularly if they have some form of dementia or cognitive decline, may not perceive temperature changes very well. As a result, they will not respond appropriately to heat, both biologically (through sweating) and behaviorally (by moving to someplace cool).

Finally, certain medications that seniors may take, like diuretics and other high blood pressure drugs can affect hydration, blood flow and the sweat response. Individuals should be encouraged to consult their doctor about the side effects of any medications they are taking.

How to Stay Safe

On hot days, older adults and people with serious health conditions should limit outdoor activities like walking and gardening to cooler mornings and evenings. They should also take frequent breaks and drink plenty of water, even if they are not thirsty. If an activity starts to feel harder than normal, that is a signal to stop and find a place to cool down.

Signs of dehydration or heat exhaustion include dizziness, lightheadedness, headache, flushed face, a racing heart or feeling lethargic. Low energy is especially important to watch out for in people with cognitive impairment, who may not realize how hot they are and are unable to verbalize how they feel. If heat exhaustion worsens to a heatstroke, it becomes a life-threatening emergency.

While older adults face unique challenges when it comes to heat, the ways to cool down are the same for any age. If you or a loved one start to experience any of the above symptoms, the best thing you can do is to go somewhere that has air conditioning. If air conditioning is not available in the home, check for a local cooling center.

In the absence of air conditioning, water is extremely helpful in reducing the risk for heat-related injury. Rubbing an ice cube or cold compress over your skin, spraying yourself with cool water or taking a cool shower or bath can also help.

For more heat related safety tips, visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website at CDC.gov/extreme-heat.

Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living" book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization's official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.

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