In the depths of winter, we often yearn for the return of sunny weather and warm, balmy days. But, as thermometers rise, so does the risk of heat-related illnesses. Hundreds of people die of heat illnesses yearly in the U.S., and many thousands end up in emergency rooms. Extreme heat causes more deaths than floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes.
Although heat illnesses can affect anyone, the young and the old are most susceptible. Older people may be less able to adapt to high temperatures. They are more likely to suffer from dehydration and heat stroke. The risk is even higher for seniors with cognitive and physical challenges, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
In this article, we look at how heat can impact seniors’ health and what they and caregivers can do to limit the risk.
How Does Hot Weather Affect Seniors?
Seniors and their caregivers should understand the symptoms of heat illnesses in the elderly. Heat illnesses don’t always present in the same way and are easily overlooked or attributed to another cause. Prolonged exposure to excessive heat can kill, so the symptoms must be spotted and remediated quickly before irreversible damage is done.
Dehydration is a lack of water in the body. Seniors lose more water than usual when the weather is hot, particularly those with heart conditions and who take diuretics. The symptoms of dehydration include headaches, dizziness, confusion, cramps, and loss of consciousness.
Syncope is the medical term for fainting. Heat syncope occurs when a senior faints or feels dizzy while exposed to hot weather or over-hot indoor conditions. It often presents when the senior has been standing for a long time or when they suddenly stand up after sitting or lying down. Heat syncope is made worse by dehydration.
Heat cramps are muscle cramps caused by exercising in hot weather. They typically present as cramps in the legs, arms, or abdomen. The body loses moisture and essential salts when it sweats in hot weather; low salt levels cause muscles to involuntarily and painfully contract.
Heat edema is swelling of the legs and hands. It occurs when a senior has been standing or sitting in a hot environment for long periods. Heat expands blood vessels, and gravity causes fluid to pool in the hands and legs.
Heat exhaustion is a severe medical condition caused by exposure to a hot environment and dehydration. Symptoms include heat cramps, physical weakness, paleness, skin that is cold to the touch, a weak pulse, and heat syncope. If not treated immediately, heat exhaustion may become heat stroke.
Heat stroke is a potentially deadly increase in body temperature. A key indication of heat stroke is a body temperature above 104°F (40°C). Repeated or lengthy exposure to high-temperature environments can result in heat stroke in seniors, as can physical exertion in high temperatures. Symptoms include red skin that is hot and dry to the touch, a racing pulse, headaches, dizziness, vomiting, syncope, confusion, and lethargy.
Heat stroke can kill if it is not treated. It is a medical emergency. If you are caring for a senior you believe has heat stroke, call 911 for medical assistance immediately.
Heat Exhaustion vs. Heat Stroke
Heat exhaustion is the general term for the impact excessive heat over a prolonged period has on the human body. We become weak, sweat excessively, and may vomit or feel nauseous. Heat exhaustion is a critical condition, and seniors suffering from it should be treated immediately, as we describe below.
Heat stroke, which often follows from heat exhaustion, occurs when a senior’s body temperature reaches 104°F. The normal body temperature for a healthy person is around 98-100°F. The body tries to maintain a temperature in that range because a few degrees higher disrupts critical bodily functions. If an excessively high body temperature is maintained for too long, death follows. That’s why it’s vital to prevent heatstroke by reacting quickly to signs of heat illness in seniors.
Be aware that the outside temperature doesn’t have to be over 104°F for a person to get heat stroke. The body generates heat that, if it cannot be shed efficiently, contributes to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
How to Treat Seniors with Heat Exhaustion or Heat Stroke
Seniors suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke should be treated by a trained medical professional as soon as possible. While you are waiting for a medical professional to arrive, you can take the following action to ensure the senior’s condition does not worsen:
- Provide plenty of water or sports drinks. Sports drinks typically contain electrolytes, essential salts the body loses when dehydration occurs (do not force an unconscious or drowsy person to drink; they may choke).
- Move the senior away from direct sunlight into a shaded and air-conditioned space.
- Remove or loosen tight clothing.
- Use cool water or a cloth soaked with cool water on the face, neck, and armpits to reduce their temperature.
What Temperature Is Too Hot for Seniors?
There is no generally applicable answer to the question of what temperature is too hot for seniors. Of course, no one should spend long periods in swelteringly hot and humid conditions. Anyone can suffer from heat illnesses.
However, remember that older people are more susceptible to heat illness, especially if they have heart or circulatory problems, skin issues that hinder sweating, kidney disease, are overweight or underweight, or have conditions treated by tranquilizers, diuretics, sedatives, and blood pressure medications.
How To Keep the Elderly Cool In Hot Weather
Avoid Going Outside When It’s Hot
The best way to avoid heat illnesses is to stay in a cool, temperature-controlled environment when it’s hot out. If you have to go outside, avoid exposure to direct sunlight and return to a lower temperature environment as soon as possible.
Avoid Exercise During the Hottest Part of the Day
When you exercise, your muscles put out a lot of heat. Strenuous activity makes it much more likely that you’ll suffer from a heat illness even if it isn’t very hot outside. Even a gentle walk can increase the risk, depending on your physical condition. Try not to exercise in a hot environment—wait for a cooler time of day or exercise in a temperature-controlled space.
Adequate hydration is essential. Ensure you always have water, fruit juice, or a sports drink, and take regular sips to maintain hydration. Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
Turn on the Air Conditioning
If you have air conditioning in your home, use it. Maintaining a cool consistent temperature is the best way to avoid heat illness. Even though most heat illnesses occur outside, it’s not uncommon for people in hot parts of the country to suffer heat illnesses in their homes, so seniors and caregivers should monitor inside temperatures and take action if they rise above a comfortable temperature for too long.
Dress for the Weather
Wear clothes that are suitable for the temperature of your environment. In hot weather, wear loose-fitting clothing made of lightweight fabrics. Some people prefer to wear natural fibers like cotton in hot weather. If you are going out in the sun, wear a hat. A wide-brimmed sun hat that shades your face, nose, ears, and the back of your neck is best.
If you are caring for an older adult in hot weather, monitor them regularly and keep an eye out for the symptoms we discussed earlier in this article. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can develop very quickly, and it’s vital seniors with heat illnesses are treated immediately to avoid injury and loss of life.