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  health > seniors > story page AIDSAlternative MedicineCancerDiet & FitnessHeartMenSeniorsWomen

Older people are more vulnerable to heat

July 26, 1999
Web posted at: 11:08 AM EDT (1508 GMT)

In this story:

A breakdown in the cooling system

Avoiding heat stroke

Sources of help


By Laura Lane

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Regardless of your activity level, increase the amount of fluids you drink.
  • Replace salt and minerals -- Heavy sweating removes salt and minerals from the body. Replace them by drinking fruit juices or a sport beverage.
  • Wear appropriate clothing and sunscreen--Choose lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. In the hot sun, use sunscreen and don a wide-brimmed hat that will provide shade and keep the head cool.
  • Pace yourself -- If you are unaccustomed to working or exercising in a hot environment, start slowly and pick up the pace gradually. Your body needs time to acclimate.
  • Stay cool indoors -- Air-conditioning is one of the best ways to stay cool. If you do not have an air conditioner or evaporative cooling unit, head for a shopping mall or public library for a few hours. Also, taking a cold shower or bath is an effective way to cool off.
  • Schedule outdoor activities carefully--Plan outdoor activities for either before noon or in the evening. While outdoors, rest frequently in a shady area.
  • Use a buddy system -- When working in the heat, monitor the condition of your coworkers and have someone do the same for you. Heat-induced illness can cause a person to become confused or lose consciousness.
  • (WebMD) -- Vicki Trapasso knows all too well the challenges older people face when summer hits central New Jersey. For the last 20 years, the site manager for the Red Bank Senior Center in Red Bank, New Jersey, has delivered meals to homebound older people. Many do not have air conditioning or are afraid to open the window.

    When Trapasso enters these homes, she sees people sitting listlessly or trying to stay cool any way they can. But sometimes their efforts aren't good enough. Every year, older people in this country will die from the heat.

    In fact, between 1979 and 1996, 2,862 Americans died because of hot weather, and 61 percent of them were 55 years or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For every one million people in the general population, three died of heat stroke during those years. However, for people between the ages of 75 and 84, that number tripled to nine. For people 85 years and older, the number who died of heat stroke jumped to 14 out of every million.

    It's a sad fact that older people are more vulnerable to high summer temperatures than younger people are. Older people are more frail and more likely to be suffering from disease or taking medications that compromise their body's ability to cope with heat.

    A breakdown in the cooling system

    Normally, the body has several mechanisms to keep itself cool, said heat stroke expert Dr. Gary Reed, professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas. Blood vessels at the surface of the body enlarge, allowing more heat to dissipate into the environment.

    In older people with heart disease, these enlarged blood vessels can overload the heart, which is forced to work harder, possibly leading to heart failure. Moreover, neurological diseases, such as strokes or Parkinson's disease, can compromise the brain's ability to sense the heat, so the brain doesn't instruct the blood vessels to dilate.

    Sweating is another way the body cools itself, Reed said. But as people grow older, their ability to sweat decreases. They also tend not to get as thirsty, so they drink less water, which decreases sweating even further.

    In addition, older people often take medications that interfere with sweating, such as antihistamines, some tranquilizers and heart and blood pressure medications. Hot, humid conditions also make it difficult to sweat; humidity inhibits the evaporation of water off the skin and doesn't allow sweat to cool the body.

    However, there is a way to trick the body into sweating. Reed said that people who don't own an air conditioner can cover their skin with a wet rag and sit in front of an electric fan.

    Avoiding heat stroke

    People also should decrease their alcohol intake and activity level during hot weather to prevent heat stroke, Reed added.

    Symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • body temperature of more than 103 degrees
  • throbbing headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • confusion
  • unconsciousness
  • red, hot and dry skin
  • rapid and strong pulse
  • Symptoms of heat exhaustion are more mild and include:

  • heavy sweating
  • paleness
  • muscle cramps
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • headache
  • nausea
  • fainting
  • Heat exhaustion should be treated with fluids, a cold shower and rest. Left untreated, it can progress to heat stroke, which can be deadly.

    Sources of help

    Another major reason older people tend to suffer from the summer heat is that they often aren't mobile and can't travel to an air-conditioned mall or movie theater, said Enid Borden, executive director of the Meals on Wheels Association of America, which delivers about one million meals to older people every day.

    She said that organizations like Meals on Wheels or other social agencies can typically help older people cope with the heat by moving them to air-conditioned senior centers. Older people who can't afford to run their air conditioners can benefit from financial aid programs with local electric companies. Some programs give away electric fans, and even air conditioners, to needy older people.

    Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    Copyright 1999 WebMD. All rights reserved.

    Heat-related injury

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    National Institutes on Aging
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