Heat Waves May Endanger Older Adults
Extreme heat has been sweeping across the United States. The summer of 2023 has been the hottest on record. A recent (2023) study attributed the heat wave to climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Since those emissions continue to grow, heat waves will become an expected part of life across most of the United States.
Extreme heat kills more Americans than other weather events, including hurricanes, tornados, floods, and extreme cold. While the death rate is higher in Europe (where households are less likely to be air conditioned), experts are concerned that deaths attributed to heat are underreported in the US.
While the number of US deaths caused by extreme heat is unclear, there is little doubt that rising temperatures are associated with increased mortality. Excessive heat can be a direct cause of death when it triggers heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Hotter temperatures also cause the heart to beat faster and contribute to cardiovascular disease.
Extreme Heat and Older Adults
Extreme heat may place older adults at greater risk of heat-related illness than younger people. Older adults are more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions that are exacerbated by hot weather. They typically take more medications, including beta blockers and diuretics, that contribute to dehydration. In addition, older bodies tend not to perspire as efficiently as younger bodies.
Older Americans who tire of shoveling snow often retire in warm climates. Unfortunately, Florida and Arizona (the most popular retirement destinations) have experienced some of the hottest weather this summer. Having lived most of their lives in cooler climates, transplanted seniors may not be aware of the steps they should take to protect themselves from high temperatures.
Even in northern states, older adults are at risk from high summer temperatures. They may underestimate the harm that a day in the hot sun can cause. They might not have efficient air conditioning systems. Densely populated urban areas can trap heat, creating “heat islands” that place residents at unexpected risk.
Warning Signs of a Heat-Related Illness
The symptoms of a developing illness caused by excessive heat can be mistaken for ordinary thirst or fatigue. Warning signs that seniors should always take seriously include:
- Sudden dizziness or loss of coordination
- Abdominal cramps
- Swelling in legs or ankles
- Excessive perspiration
- Rapid pulse
- Clammy skin
Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency. Fainting, nausea, dry skin, the cessation of sweating, a very high body temperature, a pulse rate that is unusually slow or rapid, and behavioral changes may all signal the onset of heat stroke. Since the symptoms of heat stroke may prevent a senior from seeking medical attention, anyone who observes those symptoms in an older person should not hesitate to offer assistance or call for help.
Protecting Seniors from Extreme Heat
The dangers of very hot weather can be mitigated by taking precautions. Friends and family members of vulnerable seniors can help them stay safe by assuring that they follow these tips.
Drink plenty of liquids. Older adults should always avoid dehydration, even in cold weather. Dehydration can cause serious illnesses and complicate other health conditions. Drinking liquids is even more important during a heat wave. Replacing water lost to perspiration is essential to good health. Cold beverages hydrate while reducing body temperature. Water and juice are the healthiest choices; alcohol is the worst.
Stay indoors in an air-conditioned environment during the day. Visit a senior center, library, or movie theater if your home is too hot. Outdoor exercise should be reserved for early morning, evenings, or cooler days. Staying active is healthy but exerting yourself in hot weather could be dangerous.
Wear light clothing. Fashion should give way to lightweight, loose-fitting clothing made from cotton or other breathable fabrics. Light colors reflect the sun, while dark colors absorb sunlight and encourage the body to retain heat.
Wear sunscreen. In addition to being painful, a sunburn can cause the body to overheat.
Take a cool shower or bath if you feel uncomfortably warm.
Ask your doctor if you should be careful about using medications that might make you overheated.
Seek immediate medical attention if you notice any of the symptoms of a heat-related illness discussed above.