Date Published: 28 June 2018
Heat-related health concerns for older adults increase during the summer
In recent weeks there have been unusually high temperatures in some parts of the world while in other places high temperatures are normal during June, July and August. Although enjoyable for many, extremely hot conditions can be life threatening for some people.
Hyperthermia is elevated body temperature when the body produces or absorbs more heat than it dissipates. In extreme cases this can require emergency treatment to prevent disability or death. Yesterday the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) released some comments about hyperthermia and advice concerning how to reduce the risk of this.
In an article on its website1 the NIH stated that as people age their ability to adequately respond to summer heat can become a serious problem. Consequently older people can be at significantly increased risk of heat-related illnesses when temperatures rise during the summer months. Hyperthermia can involve problems such as heat stroke, heat edema (swelling in ankles and feet when hot), heat syncope (sudden dizziness after exercising in the heat), heat cramps, and heat exhaustion.
According to experts at the U.S. National Institute on Aging, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, knowing which health-related factors might increase the risk of over-heating could save a life. Such factors include:
- Age-related changes to the skin such as poor blood circulation and inefficient sweat glands
- Heart, lung, and kidney diseases, as well as any illness that causes general weakness or fever
- High blood pressure or other conditions that require changes in diet, such as salt-restricted diets
- Reduced sweating, caused by medications such as diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers, and certain heart and blood pressure drugs
- Taking several drugs for various conditions (it is important, however, to continue to take prescribed medication and discuss possible problems with a physician)
- Being substantially overweight or underweight
- Drinking alcoholic beverages
- Being dehydrated
Lifestyle factors that can also increase risk include, for example, extremely hot living quarters, lack of transportation, overdressing, visiting overcrowded places, and not understanding how to respond to weather conditions. The NIH article suggests that older people, particularly those at special risk, stay indoors during particularly hot and humid days - particularly if there is an air pollution alert in force. Suggestions about how to stay cool include, drinking plenty of fluids and wearing light-coloured, loose-fitting clothes in natural fabrics. People who dont have fans or air conditioners should keep their homes as cool as possible or consider going to a cool place.
It is particularly important to be aware of the danger of heat stroke, which is a severe form of hyperthermia that occurs when the body is overwhelmed by heat and unable to control its temperature. A person whose body temperature is more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit is likely to be suffering from heat stroke. Symptoms can include fainting, a change in behavior (confusion, combativeness, staggering, possible delirium or coma), dry, flushed skin and a strong, rapid pulse, and lack of sweating. The NIH article advises seeking immediate medical attention for a person with any of these symptoms, especially an older adult.
It lists the following actions to take if you suspect that someone (in the USA*) is suffering from a heat-related illness:
- Call 911* if you suspect heat stroke.
- Get the person out of the heat and into a shady, air-conditioned or other cool place. Urge them to lie down.
- If the person can swallow safely, offer fluids such as water and fruit or vegetable juices, but not alcohol or caffeine.
- Apply a cold, wet cloth to the wrists, neck, armpits, and groin. These are places where blood passes close to the surface of the skin, and a cold cloth can help cool the blood.
- Encourage the person to shower, bathe, or sponge off with cool water if it is safe to do so.