Risks of heat-related problems increase with age
As we age, our ability to adequately respond to summer heat can become a serious problem. The National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, has some advice for helping older people avoid heat-related illnesses, known collectively as hyperthermia, during the summer months.
Hyperthermia can include heat stroke, heat fatigue, heat syncope (sudden dizziness after exercising in the heat), heat cramps and heat exhaustion. The risk for hyperthermia is a combination of the outside temperature along with the general health and lifestyle of the individual. Health-related factors that may increase risk 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. For example, people on salt-restricted diets may increase their risk, but salt pills should not be used without first consulting a doctor;
- The inability to perspire, 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;
Lifestyle factors also can increase risk, including extremely hot living quarters, lack of transportation, overdressing, visiting overcrowded places and not understanding how to respond to weather conditions. Older people, particularly those at special risk, should stay indoors on particularly hot and humid days, especially when there is an air-pollution alert in effect. People without fans or air conditioners should go to places such as shopping malls, movie theaters, libraries or cooling centers which often are provided by government agencies, religious groups and social service organizations.
Heat stroke is an advanced form of hyperthermia that occurs when the body is overwhelmed by heat and unable to control its temperature. Someone with a body temperature above 104 degrees is likely suffering from heat stroke and may have symptoms of confusion, combativeness, strong rapid pulse, lack of sweating, dry flushed skin, faintness, staggering, possible delirium or coma. Seek immediate medical attention for a person with any of these symptoms, especially an older adult.
If you suspect that someone is suffering from a heat-related illness, get the person out of the sun and into an air-conditioned or other cool place.
Offer fluids such as water, fruit and vegetable juices, but avoid alcohol and caffeine.
Encourage the individual to shower, bathe or sponge off with cool water.
Apply a cold, wet cloth to the wrists, neck, armpits, and/or groin, places where blood passes close to the surface and the cold cloths can help cool the blood.
Urge the person to lie down and rest, preferably in a cool place.
For a free copy of the NIA's Age Page on hyperthermia in English or in Spanish, contact the NIA Information Center at 1-800-222-2225 or go to www.niapublications.org/agepages/hyperther.asp or www.niapublications.org/agepages/hyperther-sp.asp for the Spanish-language version.