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Heat and Elderly People: 7 Easy Tips to Avoid Heatstroke and Heat Exhaustion

Stacey Burke
By Stacey BurkeJune 28, 2021
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Hot weather can be dangerous, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to its effects. In fact, 12,000 Americans die annually from heat-related causes, according to a Climate Central report. More than 80% of victims are older than 60.

During the summer, older adults are at increased risk of heat-related illness, including heat exhaustion and heatstroke — a potentially fatal condition. Fortunately, by following a few simple precautions, and by learning about the risks associated with heat and elderly people, you can help keep your aging loved one safe all summer long.

Why does the heat affect the elderly more?

The elderly are more vulnerable to heat for several reasons.

  • The ability to sweat decreases with age. Older adults produce less sweat because their bodies retain less water, and less available sweat results in a reduced ability to cool through evaporation.
  • Many seniors have underlying health conditions that make them less able to tolerate heat. Impaired cardiovascular function can make it difficult for the body to regulate its internal temperature because blood vessels are the body’s heat ducts. When the cardiovascular system is impaired, it can be difficult for the body to transmit heat to the surface for dissipation.
  • Some medicines seniors take can contribute to dehydration. Many medications that treat heart disease, kidney conditions, and blood pressure have diuretic effects, meaning they trigger the body to expel water and salt through urination. Our bodies use salts as electrolytes and, without proper replenishment, the body remains dehydrated.
  • Seniors may not feel the urge to drink and can forget to hydrate. Being well hydrated is key to maintaining optimal bodily and cognitive function, and when dehydrated, cognitive decline and physical weakness may perpetuate the cycle of insufficient water consumption.

What is heatstroke?

Heatstroke is the most severe heat-related illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s a medical emergency requiring fast treatment.

Heatstroke, sometimes referred to as sunstroke, occurs when the body can no longer manage its temperature. It’s defined as a rapidly increasing body temperature of more than 103 degrees Fahrenheit accompanied by neurological warning signs such as confusion, seizures, or loss of consciousness.

What are the symptoms of heatstroke?

Symptoms of heatstroke in the elderly:

  • Change in behavior (e.g., confusion, combativeness, staggering, possible delirium)
  • Body temperature of 103 degrees or more
  • Red, hot, or dry skin with no sweat
  • Rapid pulse
  • Dizziness or confusion
  • Loss of consciousness

What is heat exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion is milder than heatstroke, but it can progress to a heatstroke if left untreated. Heat exhaustion typically occurs after excessive sweating. It’s the body’s response to an extreme loss of salt and water.

What are the symptoms of heats exhaustion?

Symptoms of heat exhaustion in the elderly:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Pale, cold, and clammy skin
  • Muscle cramps
  • Fast, weakened pulse
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headache
  • Fainting

What to do in case of heat exhaustion or heat stroke

If you notice your loved one exhibiting any of the symptoms listed above, follow these life-saving tips to deescalate a dangerous, heat-related situation:

  1. Cool them off. Take them to a cool area and place cold compresses on their neck, face, and head.
  2. Remove clothing. Remove socks, shoes, or anything that could make them feel hotter.
  3. Provide cool water. Encourage them to take sips at regular intervals.
  4. Seek help if needed. Call for medical assistance if symptoms worsen or don’t subside.

If you suspect your loved one is experiencing heatstroke, follow these three steps:

  1. Seek emergency help. Call 911 or take them to a hospital. A delay in treatment can be fatal or cause irreparable damage.
  2. Cool them off. While you’re waiting for help to arrive, take them to a cool area. Remove unnecessary clothing and apply ice packs or cold compresses to their body. If possible, immerse them in cool water to lower their temperature more rapidly.
  3. Avoid giving too much liquid or aspirin. The majority of heatstroke sufferers are in an altered state of consciousness, which can make it hard to drink or swallow safely. If they’re able to drink, help them drink a little at a time. Do your best to keep them cool and conscious until help arrives.

7 summer heat safety tips: advice for the elderly in hot weather

Preparation is key to maintaining a healthy balance of fun and sun. Keep your loved one safe this summer by learning how to prevent heatstroke, heat exhaustion, and other heat-related illnesses.

1. Drink plenty of liquids to avoid dehydration in seniors

Dehydration in seniors is the root of many heat-related health problems. It removes important salts and minerals from the body. Dehydration can cause dizziness, fatigue, headaches, and other health issues for seniors. Severe or long-term dehydration can lead to hospitalization, bladder infections, kidney stones, and more.

Make sure you’re choosing hydrating beverages:

  • Water
  • 100% juice drinks, like pure orange juice or apple juice
  • Sports drinks high in electrolytes
  • Coconut water

Avoid drinks that lead to dehydration:

  • Alcohol
  • Caffeinated drinks

2. Wear appropriate clothes

It’s important to choose your clothing carefully when it’s hot outside. This seemingly small decision can make a huge difference. Your clothes, and even accessories like umbrellas, can help you prevent sunburns and heat exhaustion by allowing the body to cool more easily. Choose the following:

  • Light-colored clothes
  • Lightweight fabrics or materials
  • Loose-fitting clothes
  • Hats or sunglasses

3. Stay indoors during midday hours

During periods of extreme heat, the best time to be outdoors is before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m., when the temperature tends to be cooler. Stay cool inside and note the following tips:

  • Close your windows and blinds during the day
  • Take cool baths or showers
  • Sleep in your coolest room and use light linens
  • Turn off artificial lighting and electronics
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4. Pay attention to the heat index and dew point

While many people regularly check the outside temperature in their area, it can be helpful to reference weather reports that note the heat index and dew point as well. Many weather apps and websites will list the temperature as well as the “feels like” number, which factors humidity and temperature to approximate how the weather really feels.

A high dew point means there’s more moisture in the air, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). The higher the dew point, the muggier it feels and the more you need to worry about your elderly loved one’s comfort. Note the following dew point ranges:

  • Less than or equal to 55: comfortable or dry
  • Between 55 and 65: muggy or sticky
  • Greater than or equal to 65: very hot and damp

5. Take it easy and avoid heat exposure

Remind your aging loved one that taking it easy in the summer can help their overall health and energy levels. When exposed to the sun, their body has to work overtime to keep cool. Heart and metabolic rates increase, too. This is why doing something as simple as sitting outside can leave them feeling fatigued.

When the humidity or dew point is high, it’s best to relax and avoid certain outdoor activities, such as exercise, gardening, lawn care, home repair, etc.

6. Eat healthy and hydrating foods

In addition to increasing fluid intake, there are many fruits and vegetables that can help keep your loved one nourished and hydrated, too. Have them readily available to enjoy as a snack, or serve them as a side dish with meals. You can even cut some of these options up and put them in water to infuse it with extra flavor.

Hydrating fruits:

  • Watermelon
  • Strawberries
  • Grapefruit
  • Pineapple
  • Starfruit

Hydrating vegetables:

  • Cucumbers
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Celery
  • Radishes
  • Zucchini

7. Check in regularly with elderly loved ones

Call or visit senior loved ones regularly during hot weather. Keep these considerations in mind:

  • Check whether they’re drinking water and staying hydrated.
  • Offer to pick up their favorite beverages or hydrating foods if they’re running low.
  • Ask how much time they spend outside. Do they use sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses?
  • Make sure they have air-conditioning or fans.

Lastly, if your loved one is struggling to pay utility or cooling bills, the National Council on Aging has a list of energy assistance programs. The Low-Income Energy Assistance Program specifically helps seniors with energy and cooling costs.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control. Tips for Preventing Heat-Related Illness.
https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/heattips.html

Cleveland Clinic. Drink Up: Dehydration is an Often Overlooked Health Risk for Seniors.
https://health.clevelandclinic.org/drink-up-dehydration-is-an-often-overlooked-health-risk-for-seniors/

Climate Central. Seniors at Risk: Heat & Climate Change
https://ccimgs-2020.s3.amazonaws.com/2020HeatAndSeniors/2020HeatAndSeniors_Final0623.pdf

CMAJ. Heat stress in older individuals and patients with chronic diseases. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/cmaj/182/10/1053.full.pdf

Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences. Dehydration and Cognition in Geriatrics: A Hydromolecular Hypothesis.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27252943/

Journal of the American Medical Association. Heat Stroke.
https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2667073

National Institutes of Health. Heat-related health dangers for older adults soar during the summer.
https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/heat-related-health-dangers-older-adults-soar-during-summer

Nutrients. Neurocognitive Disorders and Dehydration in Older Patients: Clinical Experience Supports the Hydromolecular Hypothesis of Dementia.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5986442/

Rush. How the Body Regulates Heat.
https://www.rush.edu/news/how-body-regulates-heat

World Health Organization. Information and Public Health Advice: Heat and Health.
https://www.who.int/globalchange/publications/HeatstressAnnouncement_250818.pdf

Stacey Burke
Author
Stacey Burke

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