(BPT) - Staying cool during summer heat isn't just a question of comfort for senior citizens, it's a matter of good health. High temperatures can lead to serious heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and older people are at greater risk, no matter where they live, health experts say.
'As we get older, it gets more difficult for our bodies to manage extreme heat,' says Dr. Kevin O'Neil, chief medical officer for Brookdale senior living. 'A number of factors contribute to this problem, including physiological changes, increased use of medications - such as diuretics - that can contribute to dehydration, chronic health conditions, and dementia that may make it difficult for people to recognize thirst or to know how to properly protect themselves from sun and heat.'
Heat-related deaths occur more frequently among older people than younger age groups, with those older than 75 being substantially more at risk, according to A 2014 National Health Statistics Report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, heat-related illnesses claimed more than 3,300 lives between 2004 and 2010 - more than 1,200 fatalities occurred among people older than 64.
O'Neil, whose organization serves approximately 100,000 seniors in 1,147 communities throughout the United States, offers guidance on how seniors and their care-givers can act to prevent heat-related illnesses:
Learn the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are the most serious forms of heat-related illness, and they can be fatal for older people. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, nausea, weakness or fainting, and cold, clammy skin. Heat stroke symptoms include a body temperature higher than 103 degrees Fahrenheit, hot or red skin, a fast pulse and possible unconsciousness.
If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself or a senior loved one, seek medical assistance immediately. For heat stroke symptoms, call 911 for help. It's critical to treat both conditions as quickly as possible.
'Seniors can be at particular risk of becoming dehydrated during the summer,' O'Neil says. 'Normally, when we get hot, our bodies sweat to dissipate the heat, but if you're dehydrated the volume of fluid in your body is already depleted. That can impact your vascular system, which can affect your blood pressure.'
Aging may make you less able to perceive thirst, too, so you may not realize you need fluid. 'I tell people to drink more than you're thirsty for, especially when exercising or in warmer weather. Eating fruits and vegetables with a high water content, like watermelon, is also a good way to increase your fluid intake, especially if you have trouble remembering to drink more.'
Watch for signs of dehydration, including urine that's a darker yellow, rather than pale or clear. Mild dehydration can lead to heat cramps, and you can combat mild dehydration by simply drinking more. Severe dehydration can lead to heat stroke and may require treatment with intravenous fluids.
Be aware of medications' effect on heat-related illnesses.
Most seniors are on at least one type of medication, and diuretics are a common treatment for multiple common disorders, including high blood pressure. Diuretics can contribute to dehydration, and other medications may lower your resistance to the effects of extreme heat.
If you're on a diuretic, increase your water intake during the summer. Be aware that alcoholic beverages may also affect your body's ability to regulate temperature. Talk to your doctor about your medications and how they may affect you during times of extreme heat.
Be aware of how your medical conditions might elevate your risks.
Certain medical conditions - such as neuromuscular disorders, cardiovascular disease and renal disease - can increase your risk of overheating, and make you more likely to suffer from heat-related illnesses. People with Alzheimer's or other dementia may not know when they're feeling thirsty or too hot, and may not be able to communicate how they're feeling. Be aware that heat can also make medical conditions worse. Heat-related issues can elevate your risk of falling, and falls are a leading cause of hospitalization for seniors.
Take steps to stay cool.
Avoid exercising during the heat of the day, especially outdoors, and monitor weather reports for temperature and air-quality forecasts. Choose exercises like swimming and water aerobics, and consider exercising indoors. Check and change the air-conditioning filters in your home to ensure your air conditioning is working at its best to keep you cool.
Choose lightweight, light-colored clothing to help your body stay cool.
Protect your skin from sun damage.
Older skin is less efficient at producing melatonin, so it's important to wear sunscreen to protect your skin from harmful UV rays. It's also a good idea to talk with your doctor about taking a Vitamin D supplement because, as you age, your skin is less efficient at converting vitamin D into its active form on exposure to the sun. And although sunblock is highly recommended to reduce your risk of sunburn and skin cancer, it can contribute to vitamin D deficiency. .