Heatwaves and Senior Health

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This summer, deadly heatwaves over the US and Canadian Pacific Northwest claimed the lives of more than 100 people, many of them seniors over 70. In Washington state alone, the early summer heat wave killed more than 100 people, making it the deadliest weather-related event in the state’s history.

And while the calendar has just flipped to September,  heatwaves may not be behind us, especially for older people. Several factors may make seniors more sensitive to heat, even when temps don’t soar to heat-wave heights.

Heatwaves needn’t be extreme 

While the triple-digit temperatures were hard on everyone, experts warn that the very young, along with older adults, are at especially high risk of problems.

“Your ability to compensate, to dissipate heat” declines with age, says James Williams, DO, MS, an emergency physician at Northwest Texas Healthcare System and clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at Texas Tech University in Amarillo. and spokesperson for The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP).

Add to that physiologic reality the fact that many older adults take a multitude of medications for chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Those make managing exposure to high temperatures even more challenging, he says.

Older adults with chronic health issues may be at higher risk

Recently, researchers looked at the medical records of more than 9,700 older adults who had at least one chronic condition and were hospitalized for heat-related problems.

They found that older adults with chronic health issues may be at higher risk for heat-related issues due to the use of medications that could potentially sensitize them to heat—even when no extreme heat wave is present.

Heatwave-sensitive meds

Among the medicines they looked at were those for blood pressure, anticholinergics (for overactive bladder, other diagnoses), stimulants, antipsychotics. It’s important, though, not to stop or adjust the dose of these medicines without physician input, says study researcher and epidemiologist Soko Setoguchi, MD, DrPH, of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Research on whether certain minorities are more or less vulnerable to high temperatures is far from definitive, but one review of published studies suggests that African-Americans may be more vulnerable.

Heat-related warning signs

For everyone, heat-related illness is on a continuum, according to the CDC.  Problems may begin with heat rash, when clusters of pimple-like blisters form, may progress to sunburn, then on to heat cramps (heavy sweating during exertion, muscle pain or spasms), heat exhaustion (cold and clammy skin with a fast, weak pulse, nausea, even fainting or more). The most serious and last stage is heat stroke.

Heat stroke is a medical emergency, with the body temperature rising to 103 degrees Fahrenheit or more. At this stage, the pulse is rapid, confusion sets in and the person may pass out.

Keep your Cool!

To keep your cool, Drs. Williams and Setoguchi suggest:

  • Be aware of the forecast by checking your phone or other sources. Keep in mind, the temperature the app says is “not healthy for sensitive groups” may have to be adjusted downward if you are older. And that saying that “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” has some truth to it. “The humidity prevents you from dissipating the heat,” Williams says.
  • Hydrate! Be sure you have access to water and keep drinking throughout the day. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty to sip.
  • Scale back. Remember that with age, none of us—not even the fittest among us—respond as well to the heat. Adjust your activities.
  • Other factors. The medications you are on may complicate your response to heatwaves. If you’re overweight or obese, your response to the heat may be further challenged.
  • Check in with others. Adults who live alone should check up on friends during heat waves and ask them to reciprocate. The heat can get you into trouble quickly.

This article offered by Senior Planet and Older Adults Technology Services is for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.  

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