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.
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, 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:
- Humidity hinders the cooling process because perspiration does not evaporate as quickly.
- Conditions that alter blood circulation, like high blood pressure 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
- Calling for medical help
Preventing Heat-Related Illnesses
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:
- 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 the senior center, the mall, or the library.
- 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.
- Do not go out during the hottest part of the day.
- Pace your activities.
- Ask a friend or relative to check on you twice daily.
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, which 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 trip wisely. Stay indoors on cold, windy days.
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 medicines. Play it safe—wear seasonal clothing, modify habits, and create a buddy system to check on each other.
- Reviewer: Brian Randall, MD
- Review Date: 05/2012 -
- Update Date: 05/23/2012 -