Older adults are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of extreme heat. A majority of heat-related deaths in the United States occur among people who are older than 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so those individuals need to be especially vigilant amid rising temperatures.
As we age, our ability to sweat and to dilate blood vessels to cool our body declines, said Dr. Basil Eldadah, a supervisory medical officer in the division of geriatrics and clinical gerontology at the National Institute on Aging. Additionally, the ability to handle stressors such as hot weather could be further compromised if someone already had other medical issues, said Dr. Sharon A. Brangman, the chair of the department of geriatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y.
“When you add those medical problems plus heat, it can create a situation where your body just can’t handle it,” she said
Dr. Brangman said that older people who were dealing with a heat-related illness might feel dizzy, lightheaded or flushed and could experience nausea or confusion. They may have an elevated or weakened pulse, and their skin may feel dry and hot to the touch.
“If they’re darker-skinned, they may look darker than their normal color,” she said. “If they have lighter skin, they may get very red and pink in the face.”
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Other symptoms of heat-related illness include cramps, swelling in the feet and rashes, Dr. Eldadah said.
Signs of a heat stroke include a body temperature above 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius), and symptoms including fainting, confusion, lack of sweating and a slowing heartbeat.
Older adults experiencing any of these symptoms when it’s hot out should seek immediate medical care.
To prevent heat-related illness, older adults should avoid going outside during the hottest part of the day, and should stay in air-conditioned environments as much as possible. This is especially the case during hot and humid days, when the cooling effect we get from sweating is reduced, Dr. Eldadah said.
If your home doesn’t have air-conditioning, keep the shades down, use a fan to blow air around, take showers to stay cool, wear loosefitting clothing and take it easy, even if you are in good health. “This isn’t the time to go out and mow your lawn,” Dr. Brangman said.
You should also refrain from consuming alcohol, sugary drinks and caffeine, which can lead to dehydration. And, of course, you should drink plenty of water.
It is also important to be aware that heat can interact with certain medications; people with heart disease who are on a diuretic, for example, could be at risk of getting dehydrated, Dr. Brangman said. Speak to your doctor to see if any of the medications you are taking should be adjusted when it’s hot.
Caregivers have an especially important role in preventing heat-related illnesses in the older adults they look after:
Check in frequently and ensure that the living space of those under your care is temperate. Don’t blast the air conditioning, either, as the opposite problem — hypothermia — can become a concern.
If the space cannot be made sufficiently cool, consider moving your loved one to a cooling center — be it a mall, a library or another cool place.
If needed, sponge down those you are looking after with cool water and make sure their clothes are loosefitting.
Encourage those in your care to drink plenty of water.
Caregivers should keep in mind that “people who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may not understand when they’re thirsty or may not know how to quench their thirst or get a drink,” Dr. Brangman said. “So they need extra supervision to make sure that they are getting enough hydration.”
Most of all, caregivers should remain vigilant and be ready to act fast, as it may take as few as 10 minutes for a body’s temperature to go up to a dangerous level, said Dr. Brangman. If the person you are looking after displays any symptom of heat distress, call 911 and go to a hospital right away.
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