Tips to help aging individuals cope with extreme heat

This summer has been brutal – temperature-wise. In a recent blog post, Tom Skilling, Chicago’s favorite forecaster, reminded residents just how hot it's been. If we crack the 90-degree marker 11 more times, he said, we will tie the 24-year record for the most days over 90 degrees. And considering that Chicago’s five-day forecast calls for three days of above-90 temps, it looks like we just might do it.
Despite the fact that the worst is behind us, it’s still a good idea to be reminded of the health risks that this type of weather can pose to aging individuals. Hypothermia, usually associated with cold temperatures, is actually a failure of the heat-regulating mechanisms of the body to deal with heat. According to the National Institute on Aging, heat fatigue, heat syncope (sudden dizziness after prolonged exposure to the heat), heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are commonly known forms of hyperthermia, particularly dangerous for America’s aging population.
This is true due to certain lifestyle factors exhibited by older individuals, such as not drinking enough fluids, living in housing without air conditioning, lack of mobility and access to transportation, overdressing, visiting overcrowded places and not understanding how to respond to hot weather conditions.
The NIA says that the following health-related factors, some especially common among older people, may increase the risk of hyperthermia:

  • Being dehydrated.
  • Age-related changes to the skin such as impaired blood circulation and inefficient sweat glands.
  • Heart, lung and kidney diseases, a

    s well as any illness that causes general weakness or fever.

  • High blood pressure or other conditions that require changes in diet. For example, people on salt-restricted diets may be at increased risk. However, salt pills should not be used without first consulting a doctor.
  • 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.
  • Being substantially overweight or underweight.
  • Drinking alcoholic beverages.

They recommend that “older people, particularly those with chronic medical conditions, should stay indoors on hot and humid days, especially when an air pollution alert is in effect. People without air conditioners should go to places that do have air conditioning, such as senior centers, shopping malls, movie theaters and libraries. Cooling centers, which may be set up by local public health agencies, religious groups and social service organizations in many communities, are another option.”
If a heat-related emergency should arise, here are a few responses to carry out to help abate the situation, according to the NIA:

  • Get the person out of the heat and into a shady, air-conditioned or other cool place. Urge them to lie down.
  • If you suspect heat stroke, call 911.
  • Encourage the individual to shower, bathe or sponge off with cool water.
  • Apply a cold, wet cloth to the wrists, neck, armpits, and/or groin. These are places where blood passes close to the surface of the skin, and the cold cloths can help cool the blood.
  • If the person can swallow safely, offer fluids such as water, fruit and vegetable juices, but avoid alcohol and caffeine.

The high temperatures that come with a Midwestern summer are a fact of life. But as long as individuals respect the heat, they won’t need to fear the life-threatening illnesses that are sometimes associated with it.