Older adults are especially vulnerable to the dangers of extreme heat. A majority of heat-related deaths in the United States occur among people over the age of 65. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionso those individuals need to be extra vigilant with rising temperatures.
As we age, our ability to sweat and dilate blood vessels to cool our bodies decreases, said Dr. Basil Eldadah, a medical supervisory officer in the division of geriatrics and clinical gerontology at the National Institute on Aging. In addition, the ability to cope with stressors such as hot weather can be further impaired if someone already had other medical problems, said Dr. Sharon A. Brangman, the chair of the division of geriatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY
“If you add those medical issues plus heat, it can create a situation where your body just can’t handle it,” she said
dr. Brangman said older people dealing with a heat-related illness may feel dizzy, lightheaded or red, and experience nausea or confusion. They may have a raised or weakened pulse and their skin may feel dry and warm.
“If they have dark skin, they can look darker than their normal color,” she said. “If they have lighter skin, they can become very red and pink on the face.”
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Other symptoms of heat-related illness include cramps, swelling in the feet and skin rashes, said Dr. Eldada.
Signs of heat stroke include a body temperature above 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) and symptoms such as fainting, confusion, lack of sweating and a slow heart rate.
Older adults who experience any of these symptoms when it is hot should seek immediate medical attention.
To avoid heat-related illness, older adults should avoid going outside during the hottest part of the day and stay in an air-conditioned environment as much as possible. This is especially true during hot and humid days, when the cooling effect we get from sweating is reduced, said Dr. Eldada.
If your home doesn’t have air conditioning, keep the curtains closed, use a fan to blow air around, take a shower to keep cool, wear loose-fitting clothes, and take it easy even if you’re in good health. “Now is not the time to go out and mow your lawn,” said Dr. Brangman.
You should also refrain from consuming alcohol, sugary drinks, and caffeine, which can lead to dehydration. And of course you should drink a lot of water.
It’s also important to know that heat can interact with certain medications; people with heart disease who take a diuretic, for example, are at risk of becoming dehydrated, said Dr. Brangman. Talk to your doctor to see if any of the medications you’re taking need to be adjusted when it’s hot.
Caregivers play a particularly important role in preventing heat-related illness in the older adults they care for:
Check in regularly and ensure that the living space of those under your care is moderate. Also, don’t blow up the air conditioning as the opposite problem – hypothermia – can become a concern.
If the space can’t be made cool enough, consider moving your loved one to a cooling center — be it a mall, library, or other cool place.
If necessary, sponge the people you care for with cold water and make sure their clothes are loose.
Encourage those in your care to drink plenty of water.
Caregivers should keep in mind that “people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may not understand when they are thirsty or don’t know how to quench their thirst or get something to drink,” said Dr. Brangman. “So they need extra supervision to make sure they’re getting enough fluids.”
Most importantly, health care providers should remain vigilant and be ready to act quickly, as it can take as little as 10 minutes for body temperature to rise to dangerous levels, said Dr. Brangman. If the person you are caring for shows any symptom of heat distress, call 911 and go to a hospital right away.