Extreme Heat Is Most Dangerous Weather Emergency for Seniors
Every summer, we read of heat waves that take the lives of vulnerable elders. Geriatricians have long known that while high air temperatures can be dangerous for people of any age, seniors are at highest risk.
As we grow older, our bodies are less able to regulate temperature, and we perspire less. Some of the medications we take can interfere with fluid balance. We are less able to tell when we are overheated. It may be hard for seniors to get out of a dangerously warm house or apartment. They may struggle to pay energy bills to cool their home.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has long stated that in all likelihood, heat-related illness and deaths of older adults have been underreported. Now, in what is being called the most comprehensive study of heat-related illness to date, researchers from Harvard School of Public Health have analyzed data on the relationship between extreme heat and the hospitalization of older adults. The research team examined 127 billion daily hospitalizations of 23.7 million people on Medicare over the course of a decade in almost 2,000 counties of the United States. They coordinated the data with more than 4,000 temperature monitors from around the country.
The study, which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, confirmed that "extreme heat is the most common cause of weather-related mortality in the U.S." The greatest risk was from heat stroke (defined below). Extreme heat also was associated with an increase in the number of seniors who were hospitalized for fluid and electrolyte disorders, kidney failure, urinary tract infections and severe blood infections (sepsis).
One important finding: Though the risks were highest on heat wave days, they remained elevated for close to a week after the hottest days had passed.
Protect Older Loved Ones During Summer Heat
Check on elderly loved ones during heat waves just as you would during any emergency or natural disaster. Take these steps to keep them safe:
- If the home has air conditioning, be sure it is in good working order. If your loved one is worried about cooling costs, look into resources that help seniors pay their energy bills. If the air conditioner is an older model, it might be worthwhile to get a new energy-efficient one that is cheaper to operate.
- If the home is not air-conditioned, open windows to let in cooler air during early morning and evening hours. Close drapes and blinds to block out the sun and use fans to circulate air.
- If it is impossible to adequately cool your loved one's home, get them to a place that is air-conditioned. This might be a great day to take Mom on an outing to the mall, or to see a movie! If your loved one uses in-home care services, work with the agency to find resources to help manage the temperature in the home or to transport your loved one to a cooler place.
- Many communities offer daytime cooling centers, located in community centers, libraries, senior centers, schools and fire departments. Learn about these shelters ahead of time. If your loved one has a pet, find out if there are pet-friendly centers in the area.
- Encourage your loved one to drink plenty of fluids. Our thirst mechanism is less sensitive as we grow older, so offer fluids even if your loved one doesn't seem thirsty. (People who are on a fluid-restricted diet should consult their physician before changing their fluid intake.) Fresh fruit also is a good source of fluids. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can increase dehydration.
- Help your loved one dress in lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothes. Natural fabrics, such as cotton and linen, are coolest. Many synthetic fabrics trap heat and perspiration against the body.
Signs of Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke
Heat exhaustion symptoms include heavy sweating; cold, pale, clammy skin; weakness; fast pulse; nausea; and fainting.
Heat stroke is a serious condition; the symptoms include body temperature higher than 103°; hot, red skin, either dry or moist; rapid and strong pulse; and possible unconsciousness. Heat stroke is a medical emergency. Call 911 immediately, and move the person to a cooler environment. Reduce the person's body temperature with cool cloths or a bath. Do not give fluids.