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Seniors and Heat Illness: Why the Elderly Are More Affected By the Heat

During the summer months, staying hydrated is more important than ever, especially during heat waves. The reason for this is simple: Dehydration diminishes your ability to regulate temperature, and thus, your risk of developing a heat illness rises dramatically.

Heat illnesses are of special concern to senior citizens, because older adults are much more affected by summer heat. For instance, from 1999-2009, roughly 40 percent of all heat-related deaths in the U.S. – nearly 3,000 – were adults over 65 years old.

Why Are Seniors More Prone to Heat Illnesses?

When we age, our bodies become less efficient at regulating temperature for a couple of reasons. Seniors over 65 don’t sweat as much as younger adults, which unfortunately is one of the body’s most important heat-regulation mechanisms.  Also, seniors store fat differently, which complicates heat-regulation in the body further.

Why’s this serious? Well, as the temperature rises, so too does your internal body temperature, especially when you’re exposed directly to the sun or extremely hot environments. Which is why seniors suffer from heat stroke more often than younger people throughout the summer.

There are a variety of lifestyle and health factors that increase the risk of developing a heat-related illness:

  • Dehydration
  • Chronic illnesses (heart and kidney diseases; blood circulation conditions)
  • Prescription medications that reduce sweating
  • Salt-restricted diets
  • Overdressing
  • Lack of airflow or access to air-conditioning
  • Living in particularly hot climates (Arizona and Nevada, for example, lead the nation in heat-related deaths)

Signs and Symptoms of Heat-Related Illnesses in Elderly Adults

Early warning signs of heat exhaustion, which may precede the more serious heat stroke, include excessive sweating, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache and muscle cramps. Then as exhaustion progresses, symptoms may progress to nausea, vomiting and fainting. Heat stroke, though, is more serious, and it can set in within 10-15 minutes.

Heat stroke is caused when internal body temperature rises much faster than it’s lowered naturally. If the symptoms of heat stroke are present, call 911. They include extremely high body temperature, the absence of sweating, confusion, seizure and coma.

Here’s what you can do to help those suffering from these symptoms: First have someone lie down in a cool place, and if you can put a fan directly on that person even better. Then take steps to lower body temperature.  Air-conditioning, offering cool fluids, or providing access to a cool bath will also help.

Why Preventing Dehydration Is Important

Studies have shown that when you feel thirsty – just 2 percent dehydration – your ability to regulate heat begins to decline. For seniors, who already struggle to manage internal heat, dehydration can deter the body’s natural cooling processes even more.

During heat waves, seniors should be drinking water and juices regularly, and a good rule of thumb is to drink fluids at every meal, as well as sipping fluids throughout the day rather than drinking them quickly. Also, avoiding alcohol can encourage better hydration.

If you are dehydrated, though, an electrolyte drink like Drip Drop may help you rehydrate more quickly and retain more fluids. Image via Flickr.

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