At one point in mid July, more than 100,000 million people in 32 states were trapped in one of the country’s longest and strongest heat waves ever. And we’re not done yet. “It’s like an upside down cake pan is sitting on top of the nation and trapping the hot air below it,” explained one television weather reporter.
No doubt you’ve read and heard repeated warnings about staying safe during this record-breaking, scorching weather. After a while, however, all that info can become just so much noise. But if you are an older person – or someone who is a caregiver or friend to a senior citizen – please take these cautions to heart. Experts estimate that as many as 1,000 people – 40% of whom age 65 or older – die from heat-related causes each year.
Even healthy, active older folks have unique vulnerabilities to the kind of blistering, unrelenting heat we’ve been experiencing lately. Older brains become less sensitive to temperature-change signals and don’t recognize thirst as easily. (This is even more likely when a person has suffered a stroke.) And because overall percent of body water goes down with age, seniors are more likely than younger people to become dehydrated, which can lead to heat exhaustion (characterized by heavy sweating, muscle cramps, low blood pressure, rapid pulse and nausea). Left untreated, heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke, causing seizures, loss of consciousness and death.
In addition to the natural impact of aging, some of the drugs seniors may take – for example, to treat insomnia, nausea, prostate conditions and Parkinson’s disease – can interfere with the ability to sweat and thus raise body temperature. Alcohol and coffee also can cause the body to lose fluid and contribute to dehydration.
Potential dehydration is not the only problem caused by over-the-top temperatures. Heat also traps air pollutants in the atmosphere, creating a dangerous situation for anyone with respiratory issues, such as asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Here is some advice specifically geared toward protecting older people from the potentially deadly effects of a heat wave:
• Thirsty or not, drink plenty of water – as much as a quart of water a day is not unreasonable. For seniors taking water pills (diuretics) or restricting fluids, seek guidance from a physician.
• Keep glasses or bottles of cool water within easy reach – both for convenience and as a reminder. Refill them often.
• Try to stay inside, preferably in air conditioning – both to stay cool and to avoid air pollution.
• Wear light clothing.
• Avoid over-crowded locations and strenuous activity.
• During a heat wave, check on older relative and friends twice a day. If they don’t have air conditioning, help them visit an air-conditioned location for a few hours daily, such as a movie theater, shopping mall or adult daycare center.
• If you see signs of severe heat stress, try to cool the person down right away with either a cool bath or shower or by sponging or spraying them with cool water. Seek immediate medical assistance.
For more information on dealing with the effects of extreme heat, visit the Centers for Disease Control Extreme Heat Toolkit.
|Hot and Getting Hotter
Excessive heat occurs from a combination of significantly above-normal temperatures high humidities. The heat index (apparent temperature) is a measure of the effect of these combined elements on the body.
• A heat advisory is issued when the heat index is expected to exceed 105°F during the day and 80°F during the night for at least two consecutive days.