Senior man drinks water to avoid heat illness

Heat Wave: Why Seniors are More at Risk for Heat Illness

July 30

Hot days can make anyone a little cranky. But for older adults, extreme heat can be dangerous. With temperatures soaring in the 90s and 100s, even here in Westchester County, it is important to understand the effects of heat on the elderly and what precautions to take to prevent heat-related illnesses.

Why are hot days so dangerous for seniors?

“As we age, our physiology changes,” says Dr. Elaine Healy, vice president of medical affairs, medical director at United Hebrew of New Rochelle. “We don’t sweat as much. Our skin changes and can easily burn. Blood circulation may be poorer. We become less able to regulate our body temperature, and heat can exacerbate existing health conditions.”

Chronic health conditions, treated by drugs such as diuretics (“water pills”) and antihistamines, also increase the risk for heat-related illness, according to Dr. Healy, as some other medications including heart and high blood pressure medicines may make it harder for aging bodies to cool down, she notes.

And that means older adults are more at risk for hyperthermia, an umbrella term for several heat illnesses, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), which lists several conditions and related symptoms to be aware of:

  • Heat syncope: Sudden dizziness that occurs if you are active in hot weather. Certain medications, such as beta blockers, may cause you to feel even more faint.
  • Heat cramps: Usually follow intense exertion in the heat and typically are felt in abdomen, leg, or arm muscles.
  • Heat edema: A swelling caused by fluid buildup after standing or sitting for extended periods in the heat.
  • Heat rash: Red bumps appear on the skin after prolonged exposure to heat.
  • Heat exhaustion: Occurs when your body can’t cool itself down. You may feel dizzy, weak, and thirsty.
  • Heat stroke: If heat exhaustion is not treated, it may progress to a heat stroke, a serious, life-threatening condition. You may have trouble concentrating and/or have an elevated pulse.

If any of these symptoms occur, seek immediate medical attention.

Summer Heat Tips for the Elderly

Knowing your risks for hyperthermia is important. Understanding how to prevent it from happening is critical, says Jerome Bagaporo, chief nursing officer at United Hebrew of New Rochelle.

“When temperatures rise, we take extra care to keep our nursing home residents cool,” he says. “We increase the supply of fluids on all of our units, and offer them more frequently. We keep our courtyard closed, and encourage families to move their visits indoors; we also plan a lot of indoor activities to prevent boredom. Our maintenance staff also increases equipment checks on all air conditioners.”

Bagaporo offers the following heat safety tips for seniors:

  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of liquids, such as water or fruit or vegetable juices. Avoid alcohol or caffeine.
  • Dress appropriately: Wear loose, light colored clothing, preferably with natural, not synthetic fibers. Wear hats or caps.
  • Limit exercise: Physical activity is a good thing, but on extremely hot days it should be limited, particularly during the peak heat mid-day to late afternoon.
  • Plan activities indoors: Going to the movies, playing card games, visiting with family, listening to music, reading a book, or taking a cool bath are all good ways to avoid being in the sun.

In addition to the heat safety procedures we have implemented at United Hebrew, all staff is trained on the stages of hyperthermia and procedures to follow if they notice any symptoms, says Bagaporo. “Our residents’ safety is of utmost priority.”