Senior Health

7/20/2022 | By Megan Mullen

By understanding the reasons behind increased heat risks for seniors and knowing precautions for avoiding excess heat and its resulting health hazards – from discomfort to death – older adults and their loved ones can better manage the risks and know how to stay cool.

Plenty of us look forward to summer’s warmth and time spent outdoors in sunshine and fresh breezes. Summer’s extended hours of daylight give us even more chance to soak up the day. We relish vacation getaways, festivals, home and yard renovations, porch time, picnics, and other outside opportunities. 

But for seniors and others with health concerns, summer should also be a time for caution. Climate change and global warming make stifling temperatures more common – even in places known for moderate weather, where air-conditioning is a rarity. 

  • Heat advisories and excessive heat warnings affected more than 105 million people in 28 states both across the central United States and the Northeast, the Washington Post reported, “where the combination of hot weather and high humidity will lead to conditions ripe for heat-related illness or heatstroke.” 
  • In the Great Plains of the U.S., temperatures have spiked to 115 degrees in Texas and Oklahoma. More than 60 million Americans are anticipated to face triple-digit temperatures. 
  • Axios reported that more than 1,900 people died in Spain and Portugal from heat-related causes over roughly a week as an unprecedented heat wave moved through Europe – a number that was expected to grow as the heat continued.
  • Parts of England reached a high of 104 degrees Fahrenheit – a first in the nation’s recorded history. “Train stations were shut or empty; an airport closed a runway and police closed a highway when asphalt melted and buckled,” reported NPR. The city’s fire brigade received 1,600 calls for assistance. 

Such weather conditions mean the risks for heat-related illness and death increase greatly, especially for older adults. 

Related: Keep your pets safe in the summertime, too.

Spending time in the heat can be risky for older adults, from overdoing it in sports and exercise to simply living in a residence that lacks air-conditioning. It’s important to take steps to avoid severe health problems caused by excess heat.

Why increased heat risks for seniors?

1. Diminishing capability of the body’s natural heat defenses

woman being helped in a park after having a heat stroke. Photo by Chernetskaha, Dreamstime. Because of greater heat risks for seniors, older adults and their loved ones should know the health hazards and tips for staying cool.

Factors such as the percentage of body fat, muscle mass, circulation and perspiration levels, and overall hydration (which affects many body parts and functions) play key roles in regulating body temperature. As metabolic attributes and autonomic responses, these processes slow and become less effective as we age, increasing heat risks for seniors. 

Moreover, seniors can be more sensitive than their younger counterparts when it comes to outdoor phenomena, such as the weather and local climate shifts and being overdressed or underdressed for the prevailing temperatures, as well as in regulating the indoor climate for varying seasons.

2. Chronic or recurring illnesses and comorbidities

Chronic disease and disability places stress on the body, over and beyond everyday challenges – including adapting to temperature extremes. 

3. Cognitive decline

As people grow older, some develop Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, Huntington’s disease and other brain disorders, and depression. 

Such disorders can increase heat risks for seniors in several ways: they may often wander off, regardless of extreme temperatures; they may be unaware of the symptoms of extreme temperatures; and they may lack cognitive awareness of the actions to take to protect themselves.

4. Medications

Certain blood pressure medications – such as angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs), angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and diuretics (which deplete the body’s sodium) – can heighten a negative heat response, potentially leading to further illness.

Psychiatric medications that are conducive to heat intolerance include:

  • Tricyclic antidepressants like Elavil and Pamelor
  • Antipsychotics like Haldol and Thorazine
  • Dopaminergic drugs like Sinemet

Of course, other medications also can affect heat tolerance and increase heat risks for seniors, so be sure to read the labels and prescribing guidelines and consult with your doctor about hot weather precautions. 

Remember that, despite any drug risks the heat might cause, it’s essential to maintain your daily prescription regimen. You don’t want to fall ill from the health condition(s) they are meant to treat.

5. Older adults can’t always afford climate-controlled housing

Older adults and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes might have limited resources for upgrading or replacing HVAC equipment. Moreover, energy costs associated with older systems could exacerbate affordability concerns. 

When these systems fail to function as they should, the situation could result in serious health hazards if the occupants are exposed to extreme temperatures or resort to unsafe heating or cooling methods such as poorly secured window air conditioning units.

Precautions for avoiding heat risks for seniors

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other reputable medical sources recommend the following steps for avoiding heat risks for seniors.

1. Stay cool

Follow these tips for staying cool to avoid heat risks for seniors:

  • Likewise, avoid using the oven or stove on hot days. 
  • Cool down with wet rags, a shower, or a bath. 
  • Keep blinds or curtains closed to keep out the hot sun.
  • Don’t rely on a fan as your primary cooling source during a heat wave. 
  • If your home doesn’t have air conditioning, many private and public organizations operate cooling centers during extreme heat. Contact your local health department or locate an air-conditioned shelter in your area. Even libraries and shopping malls can provide a respite from the heat.

2. Stay hydrated

Drink a substantial amount of liquid, including water and juice, but don’t wait until you actually feel thirsty. Avoid strenuous activity and rest as needed since high heat and expending excessive energy can lead quickly to dangerous dehydration – especially for seniors. And avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can exacerbate dehydration.

3. Stay informed

Follow area weather reports regularly in summer to prepare for any upcoming heat waves.

4. Avoid working or exercising outside during the hottest times of the day.

Early morning is the best time to beat the heat.

5. Monitor your health

Older adults and their caregivers should watch for symptoms of excessive heat exposure, such as:

  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea
  • Foot and ankle swelling
  • Coordination difficulties
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Rapid pulse

Specific symptoms can also indicate heat stroke, a condition requiring immediate medical attention. Call for emergency care in case of:

  • Fainting
  • Confusion, agitation, or mood swings
  • Body temperature over 104°F
  • Dry, flushed skin
  • Rapid, strong pulse or slow, weak pulse
  • Lack of sweating

In all cases, don’t go it alone unless there is no viable alternative.

5. Engage others if you need help

Caregivers and friends can be your first line of defense against heat-related illness. They can help monitor your symptoms and make sure you’re sufficiently hydrated. They could also call your doctor or 911, if necessary. 

However, if you live alone, or are alone at the time, don’t hesitate to reach for the phone if you suddenly feel unwell. Call 911 first, and then call a friend or neighbor if you can. 

In fact, checking on friends and neighbors periodically yourself will make them less hesitant to do the same for you in the future.

After all, we’re all in the increasingly hot world together.

Megan Mullen

Megan Mullen is a freelance writer, librarian, and former college professor. Senior life is one of her niches (and a personal interest). Megan enjoys using her writing and research skills to create well-crafted web content and other publications.