Each year, about 658 people die in the United States from extreme heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and heat-related deaths occur more commonly in seniors.
People over the age of 65 are more susceptible to heat stress for a number of reasons. The bodies of older adults cannot adjust to sudden temperature changes as well as younger bodies do. In addition, seniors are more likely to suffer from a medical condition that alters the body’s response to heat. Older people also more commonly take a medication that inhibits perspiration or interferes with how their bodies regulate temperature in other ways.
There are several types of heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and heat cramps. All pose special dangers to older people, so make sure you know how to spot any signs that Mom or Dad might be at risk.
Of all the heat-related illnesses, heat stroke is the most serious for seniors. This life-threatening condition develops when someone’s body cannot control its internal temperature through sweat. Unable to cool itself down, the body’s internal temperature rises rapidly and can reach 106 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in 10 to 15 minutes. Without prompt treatment, heat stroke can cause permanent disability or even death.
Symptoms of heat stroke may include:
High body temperature, typically above 103 degrees
Red skin that is hot to the touch
Dry skin with no signs of sweating
Strong, fast pulse
While milder than heat stroke, heat exhaustion is still a serious health hazard for seniors. Mom or Dad can develop this heat-related illness after continuous exposure to high temperatures for several days. Inadequate or improper fluid intake can increase the risk for heat exhaustion in seniors.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion are:
Pale skin that may be cool and moist to the touch
Feeling tired and weak
Dizziness or fainting
Nausea or vomiting
Fast and weak pulse
Rapid, shallow breathing
Heat cramps are not as serious as heat stroke or heat exhaustion, but the painful and sometimes debilitating cramps can still pose a problem for seniors. These heat-related cramps typically begin suddenly in the hands, calves and feet. Symptoms can also include hard and tense muscles that prevent seniors from walking or performing other activities of daily living.
Heat Safety for Seniors
Heat safety is important for people of all ages, but because they are more likely to experience a heat-related illness, it is critical to the health and well-being of people over the age of 65. Fortunately, there are several things you can do during hot weather to improve safety for seniors.
Visit older family members at least twice a day during hot weather. Look for signs of heat stroke or heat exhaustion.
Make sure the air conditioner and fans are on. Many seniors forgo air conditioning because they worry about the expense.
Encourage the consumption of cool, non-alcoholic beverages. Seniors who take diuretics, or “water pills,” should talk with their doctor to determine how much fluid they can drink.
What to Do for a Senior with Heat Stress
Heat stress can be a life-threatening emergency, especially for an older person. If you encounter a senior with signs and symptoms of heat stress, take action immediately.
Start by getting the person to a cool, shaded area. Use any means necessary to decrease body temperature quickly. Place the victim in a cool tub or shower, spray him or her with a garden hose or use a sponge to apply cold water. If the humidity is low, wrap a cool, wet sheet around the person and fan the body vigorously. Monitor body temperature, and continue aggressive cooling efforts until the person’s body temperature drops down to 101 to 102 degrees. Make sure to contact emergency help for the victim.
Heat safety is serious business at any age, but it’s especially vital for seniors. This summer, take special measures to make sure Mom and Dad stay safe in the heat.