Senior Life: Summertime heat precautions for seniors

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By Monica Rheuling

Ted loves to spend long hours working in his garden. He’s worked outside all of his life; first on the family farm helping with the crops, and then in his own garden working to grow food for his family. His flower garden is the envy of the neighborhood. Ted often has said the heat and humidity typical to Kentucky doesn’t bother him.

Unfortunately, though, as Ted has aged in years and developed physical health problems, the recent hot, dry weather and higher humidity levels finally have taken their toll. During a recent afternoon telephone conversation with his son, Ted sounded very confused and his son was concerned.

His son found Ted passed out on the floor. The ambulance came quickly when called, but Ted almost died. He was diagnosed with heat stroke, the most serious form of hyperthermia.

As temperatures begin to climb to 95 and 100-degrees and hover there, older adults and those with chronic health conditions have to take extra precautions. It also is important to remember a person, young or old, does not have to be directly outdoors in the sun for a heat-related illness to happen.

The rising heat and humidity can bring on severe heat-related illnesses or hyperthermia. The two most common forms of hyperthermia are heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Of the two, heat strokes especially are dangerous and require immediate medical attention.

Heat exhaustion can result when too much time is spent in a very warm environment, resulting in excessive sweating without adequate fluid and electrolyte (salt and minerals) replacement. This can occur either indoors or outdoors, with or without any physical activity.

Heat stroke occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature; a person’s body temperature rises rapidly, the sweating process stops, and the body is unable to cool down. A person’s body temperature may rise to 106 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can result from overexposure to direct sunlight, with or without physical activity, or to very high indoor temperatures. It can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not given within a timely period.

A person’s overall heath and lifestyle may add to their chance of suffering a heat-related illness. According to National Institute of Aging, some health factors, which may increase risk of heat-related illnesses, include:

  • Poor circulation, inefficient sweat glands, and changes in skin caused by the normal aging process.
  • Heart, lung and kidney disease, as well as any illness that causes general weakness or fever.
  • High blood pressure or other conditions that make it necessary to change diets. For example, salt in foods may increase the risk for heat-related illnesses. Check with a doctor before changing diets.
  • The inability to perspire, often times caused by medications, such as diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers and medications for heart and blood pressure.
  • Being substantially overweight or underweight.
  • Drinking alcoholic beverages.

The conditions in which a person lives also may increase their risk.

  • Homes without fans or air conditioners. Many older adults will not run these electrical appliances because of increased utility bills.
  • Lack of transportation. Often times, the person living in a home without a fan or air conditioner is not able to drive to air-conditioned places, such as shopping centers, cinemas or senior centers.
  • Overdressing. Because they may not be able to feel the heat, older people may not dress appropriately for hot weather.
  • Not understanding weather conditions. An older person may not fully understand how high temperatures or humidity levels can affect their health.

Everyone, especially older adults and those with chronic illnesses, should take precautions during these long, hot days of summer.

  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water or fruit juices. If the older adult has limited fluid intake, ask a doctor for an alternative during hot weather. Also, avoid alcoholic beverages or caffeinated beverages.
  • Limit outdoor activities to the coolest times of the day.
  • Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
  • Wear a hat and sunscreen.
  • Take cool baths or showers and use cool compresses on neck and wrists.

Contact Senior Life columnist Monica Ruehling at muehling@thenewsenterprise.com.