Sweltering summer temperatures are uncomfortable for everyone. But for older adults, excessive heat can prove dangerous. Among the 12,000 heat-related deaths in the United States annually, 80 percent involve individuals aged 60 or over.
As we grow older, we face increased risks for hyperthermia—the collective name for heat-related medical issues such as heat stroke or heat exhaustion. Those conditions are medical emergencies that, without immediate treatment, can cause irreversible damage or death.
Recognizing the symptoms of hyperthermia and understanding what factors increase its risks could save your life or someone you love.
What are the symptoms?
Heat stroke is the most life-threatening heat-related illness. A heat stroke can occur when a person’s body temperature spikes above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. It often happens when excessive sweating has caused depletion of body salt and water.
Someone suffering heat stroke will usually display symptoms such as confusion, dizziness, seizures, or loss of consciousness. Their skin will be hot, their heart rate will be rapid, and they will have stopped sweating.
Heat exhaustion often proceeds heat stroke. Heat exhaustion symptoms include heavy sweating, sudden fatigue, muscle cramps, nausea or vomiting, and fainting.
If you or someone around you is experiencing any of those symptoms, call 911 immediately. While waiting for medical assistance to arrive, do what you can to help relieve body heat. If possible, move to an air-conditioned area. Remove unneeded clothing (i.e., hat, shoes, socks), and apply icepacks or wet towels to the neck, wrists, and armpits. Drinking cold liquids is essential while sipping slowly.
Why are older adults at higher risk?
Many factors contribute to an older adult’s increased susceptibility to heat-related illnesses. Dehydration is a big one.
Someone suffering from heat exhaustion will sweat heavily. But when heat exhaustion leads to heat stroke, that person will stop sweating. Therefore, other factors that cause dehydration can bring on heat stroke sooner.
Many medications and treatments used for conditions that are prevalent among seniors include dehydration or reduced sweating as possible side effects. Heart and blood pressure medications, diuretics, and sedatives can prevent water retention. So too can low-sodium diets recommended for conditions such as high blood pressure.
Other age-related illnesses, such as heart disease and poor circulation, can affect the way our bodies respond to hyperthermia.
Continue to follow your doctor’s instructions. The information here explains why seniors can be prone to heat-related illnesses—and why older adults should take added precautions to avoid excessive heat.
Check on your loved ones.
Older adults who live alone have added risks for heat-related health emergencies. Some on fixed incomes avoid running their air conditioners to save on utility expenses. Those with mobility issues cannot escape their overheated homes. And many with dementia forget to eat or drink, increasing their risk for dehydration.
Be sure to check on elderly family members, friends, and neighbors during hot summer days.
Remember, hyperthermia is a life-threatening emergency. So seek medical assistance immediately.