As seasons change, it’s a good time to refresh our knowledge of how extreme environments can be deadly for seniors. Learn what temperatures are dangerous for seniors and how to prevent an emergency while enjoying each season to the fullest.
Temperature regulation changes with age
As we age, our body distribution changes — including our body fat percentage, muscle mass, skin, and sweat glands. These changes can affect our body’s thermal regulation. As a result, we may not recognize temperature swings as well.
According to the National Institutes of Health, physical and lifestyle factors can affect how one’s body reacts to heat. Age related changes to skin such as poor blood circulation and inefficient sweat glands can make cooling off more difficult. Conditions such as high blood pressure, heart, lung, or kidney disease can cause general weakness. Medication for those conditions can reduce one’s ability to sweat. Drinking alcohol also can affect one’s ability to manage temperature by causing dehydration. Lifestyle factors such as housing with inadequate heating or cooling, lack of transportation, or dressing inappropriately also can impair one’s ability to manage heat and cold.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Older adults can lose body heat faster than when they were younger due to physical changes. As the layer of fat under the skin thins, they are more susceptible to cold. Further, conditions like diabetes, peripheral artery disease, and kidney disease can restrict blood flow. In cold conditions, this can lead to serious issues such as hypothermia.
What Is hypothermia?
Hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature gets very low. For older adults, a body temperature of 95°F of lower can cause such health problems as a heart attack, kidney dysfunction, liver damage, and more. You don’t have to be caught out in a blizzard to develop hypothermia. You can develop it simply being in a house that is too cold.
Signs and symptoms of hypothermia in older adults
Awareness of the early signs of hypothermia can save lives. Early signs of hypothermia include cold feet and hands, puffy or swollen face, pale skin, shivering (in some cases the person with hypothermia does not shiver), slower than normal speech or slurring words, acting sleepy, being angry or confused. Signs of more advanced hypothermia include moving slowly, trouble walking, or being clumsy, stiff and jerky arm or leg movements, slow heartbeat, shallow breathing, and losing consciousness.
If someone is suspected of having hypothermia, call 911 first. Then you must get the person out of the cold and gently remove wet clothing, replacing it with dry, warm coats and blankets. If further warming is needed, do so gradually focusing on the center of the body. Offer the person warm, sweet, nonalcoholic drinks. Note that the person should not be rewarmed too quickly using heating lamps or a hot bath. Do not attempt to heat or massage the limbs as it can stress the heart and lungs. Tobacco and alcohol should be avoided as they hinder the rewarming process and interfere with circulation.
Staying safe in cold temperatures
Snow falling can lead to slippery conditions for people of all ages, but can be especially dangerous for older adults. While staying inside is the safest move, if you must go outside there are some steps to make your steps safer. Make sure stairs and walkways are clear. Consider hiring someone to clear snow and ice and salt the sidewalk for you. Be especially careful when you see wet pavements – sometimes they are iced over. Function over fashion is key this time of year! Choose boots with non-skid soles to prevent you from slipping. If you use a cane, make sure the rubber tip is not worn smooth, and consider an ice pick-like attachment that fits onto the end of the cane for additional traction.
Fun ways to stay active in winter
In the colder winter months, Zotta keeps residents motivated to stay active with fun contests. “I always have a New Year’s challenge and holiday challenge from Thanksgiving to Christmas,” said Zotta. Some popular challenges include the Snowman challenge, Get Fit Don’t Sit, Fit Solution Resolution, and a Couch Potato contest.
“We recently did a Step It Up challenge where the residents challenged the staff on the most steps. We had a trophy made and each year we engrave on the plaque of the trophy who won with how many steps. It was awesome!” said Zotta.
What is the ideal room temperature for seniors?
An ideal safe room temperature for older adults is between 65°F and 78°F. Too much higher, can result in dry, hot air, which can promote bacteria growth and lead to illness. Too much lower, and there is the risk of hypothermia and cold-related complications.
Indoors can be as dangerous as outdoors when it comes to the cold. To save on heating bills, close off rooms not in use and close the vents and shut the doors in these rooms. Keep the basement door closed. Place a rolled towel in front of all doors to keep out drafts. Make sure your house isn’t losing heat through windows by keeping your blinds and curtains closed. If you have gaps around the windows, try using weather stripping or caulk to keep the cold air out.
It is advised that even indoors, you should dress warmly on cold days with socks and slippers and a blanket over your legs. Sleep wearing long underwear under your pajamas, wear a hat, and use extra covers.
Taking care to eat and stay hydrated also makes a difference. If you don’t eat well, you might have less fat under your skin. Body fat helps you to stay warm. Remember, alcoholic drinks can make you lose body heat and should be imbibed moderately if at all.
Don’t be afraid to ask family or friends to check on you during cold weather. If a power outage leaves you without heat, don’t tough it out – reach out! Try to stay with a relative or friend until your home is at a safe temperature.
Some like it hot, but too much heat is dangerous for older adults and can quickly turn into hyperthermia. According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, each year about 400 deaths and thousands of emergency department visits are caused by heat illnesses. Infants and people 65 and older are most at risk for a heat related illness.
What is hyperthermia?
Hyperthermia is an abnormally high body temperature — or overheating. It’s the opposite of hypothermia, when your body is too cold. Hyperthermia occurs when your body absorbs or generates more heat than it can release. A human’s normal body temperature is about 98.6°F. If your body temperature is above 104°F you have severe hyperthermia and possibly are suffering from heat stroke.
Signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke in seniors
Heat exhaustion if untreated can become heat stroke, which may result in death. The early warning signs of heat exhaustion are nausea, light-headedness, fatigue, muscle cramping, and dizziness. It is imperative that anyone experiencing heat exhaustion immediately move to an air-conditioned place, take a cold shower, use cold compresses, drink plenty of fluids, and remove tight or extra clothing layers.
Heat stroke is a severe form of hyperthermia that occurs when the body is overwhelmed by heat and unable to control its temperature. Someone with a body temperature above 104°F is likely suffering from heat stroke. Someone experiencing heat stroke may have a headache, confusion, no sweating, rapid heart rate, nausea, or vomiting, and may lose consciousness.
A heat stroke requires immediate medical attention including calling 911 immediately, moving the person to a cooler place, and using cold compresses to get their temperature down. It is not advised to give a person fluids at this point.
Staying safe in hot temperatures
Older people, particularly those at special risk due to health conditions, should stay indoors on extremely hot and humid days, especially when there is an air pollution alert in effect. To stay cool, drink plenty of fluids and wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothes in natural fabrics. People without fans or air conditioners should keep their homes as cool as possible or go someplace cool. Senior centers, religious groups, and social service organizations in many communities provide cooling centers when the temperatures rise. Other public air-conditioned places such as shopping malls, movie theaters, or libraries are another option. If you must go outside, avoid the peak temperatures of 10 am-2 pm and opt for early morning or evening outings.
Tips safely having fun in the heat
Kay Zotta, Recreation Center Coordinator, helps residents at Meramec Bluffs, a Lutheran Senior Services Life Plan Community, have fun while beating the heat. Her top choice for summer exercise is water-based activities. “Walk, run, hop, join a water aerobics class, play water volleyball,” said Zotta. The buoyancy the water provides takes weight off joints, muscles, and bones so people can move more freely without pain. “It’s a fantastic way to give the body a good workout!”
“We have water volleyball that is so popular. I have a 96-year-old and three people that are in their early 90s that you would be amazed to see them play,” said Zotta. She loves coaching, score keeping, and refereeing the games and says it’s the best part of her day. “We have so much fun. But the residents do keep an eye on my score keeping and refereeing!”
Zotta is mindful of residents remaining hydrated as they exercise. “Don’t wait until you are thirsty to take a drink!”
Learning what temperatures are dangerous for older adults and how to manage temperature-related conditions is important. Now that you know the ideal room temperature for older adults, the warning signs of hyperthermia and hypothermia, and how to treat them, you are empowered to actively enjoy each season to the fullest.
“Staying active enables the residents to make new friends and improve existing relationships. Laughter and friendly competition help to increase harmony, trust, empathy, and intimacy among residents who experience them together,” said Zotta