Heat-Related Health Dangers Among Seniors

Each year, individuals over the age of 50 account for the majority of those who die from hyperthermia. Now that it’s officially summer, reminding aging and elderly loved ones of the dangers associated with heat is extremely important. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), aging affects older adults’ ability to respond to heat, resulting in heat-related illnesses. Known collectively as hyperthermia, such illnesses can include heat edema, heat syncope, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Specifically, heat stroke is a severe form of hyperthermia that occurs when the body is overwhelmed by heat and unable to control its temperature. The NIH reports that someone with a body temperature above 104 degrees Fahrenheit is likely suffering from heat stroke. Symptoms to look out for 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. If someone, especially an older adult, appears to be experiencing any of these symptoms, those around them should seek immediate medical attention for that person.

Ultimately, there are a number of factors that can influence an aging adult’s ability to withstand high-temperature conditions. For example, age-related changes to the skin, such as poor blood circulation and inefficient sweat glands, can reduce tolerance. Additionally, heart, lung and kidney diseases as well as any illness that causes general weakness or fever increase heat-related risks. 

Further, high blood pressure or other conditions that require changes in diet, such as salt-restricted diets, as well as being substantially overweight or underweight can result in dangerous conditions. Another condition to avoid which may amplify heat risks is dehydration. Other factors that may increase risk of hyperthermia are: 

  • 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.)
  • Drinking alcoholic beverages.

To avoid heat-related illness, aging adults should stay indoors on particularly hot and humid days, especially when there is an air pollution alert in effect. To stay cool, the NIH recommends drinking plenty of fluids and wearing light-colored, loose-fitting clothes in natural fabrics. People without fans or air conditioners should keep their homes as comfortable as possible or go someplace cool.

If someone is suspected of suffering from a heat-related illness, they or someone they are with should:

  • Call 911 if you suspect heat stroke.
  • Get the person out of the heat and into a shady, air-conditioned or otherwise 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.

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