How Seniors Can Keep Their Cool This Summer and Prevent Heat-Related Injuries

May 31, 2013


The dog days of summer are fast approaching, and while we cannot control the rising temperatures on the streets, we can control the heat index of our bodies.

When temperatures rise, so does the risk for heat stroke and other heat-related injuries. Heat accounts for more deaths than any other weather-related hazard, but the warning signs for heat-related conditions often go dangerously unnoticed. Older adults are at an especially high risk.

Dr. Michael Stern, co-director of the Geriatric Emergency Medicine Fellowship at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, says, "As a person ages, the body's response to higher temperatures changes. Compared with a younger person, an older adult may not be able to sense elevations in temperature as quickly or be able to cool down as readily. In today's society, we are also seeing an increased number of seniors doing vigorous exercise routines, which can become bad for their health if they don't slow down for scorching temperatures."

The effect of the sun on the skin of older adults can also be heightened because of changes in the skin as one ages. "You can burn much quicker even with short exposure to the sunlight," says Dr. Evelyn Granieri, director of geriatrics at NewYork-Presbyterian/Allen Hospital.

"Heat-related injuries range from minor issues, such as muscle cramps due to loss of water and salt through perspiration, dizziness, clammy skin and rapid heart beat to heat exhaustion in the form of headaches, nausea and weakness, and finally heat stroke, which can be fatal," says Dr. Granieri.

There are also several medical conditions that can increase the risk for heat stroke, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and psychiatric illness. Seniors taking daily medications for chronic conditions should know that many of these medications can contribute to heat-related injuries. Consult your physician with questions.

Drs. Stern and Granieri offer seniors the following tips for a cool and injury-free summer:

  • Slow down. When temperatures begin to reach extreme highs, stay in the coolest place available — out of the sun, in an air-conditioned room or in front of a fan. Also reduce or eliminate all strenuous activities.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids even if you do not feel thirsty. You should minimize the amount of caffeinated beverages and alcohol that you drink, and grab a water bottle or a sports drink instead. A good way to make sure you're hydrated is by checking the color of your urine — it should be clear. If you have a heart condition, consult your physician regarding your appropriate fluid intake.
  • Don't get too much sun. Sunburn makes the job of staying cool that much more difficult. Always remember to use sunblock (SPF 15 or greater) when outdoors for prolonged periods of time in the summer months, even on hazy or cloudy days. It is also important to check on loved ones or friends with memory problems to ensure that they are not in the sun for any extended period of time. They may not recognize or be able to tell you that they are uncomfortable.
  • Dress cool. Lightweight, light-colored, loose clothing reflects heat and sunlight and helps your body maintain normal temperatures.
  • Anticipate change. Make it a habit to turn on air conditioning systems or other ventilators as soon as you go inside and take off extra layers of clothing when going outside. For seniors having trouble recognizing temperature changes, this can help maintain a comfortable indoor and outdoor environment.
  • Stay connected. Ensure that a family member, friend, neighbor or home health aide can check up on you regularly during a heat wave.

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, based in New York City, is the nation's largest not-for-profit, non-sectarian hospital, with 2,353 beds. The Hospital has nearly 2 million inpatient and outpatient visits in a year, including more than 220,000 visits to its emergency departments -- more than any other area hospital. NewYork-Presbyterian provides state-of-the-art inpatient, ambulatory and preventive care in all areas of medicine at five major centers: NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian/Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, NewYork-Presbyterian/The Allen Hospital and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Westchester Division. One of the most comprehensive health care institutions in the world, the Hospital is committed to excellence in patient care, research, education and community service. NewYork-Presbyterian is the #1 hospital in the New York metropolitan area and is consistently ranked among the best academic medical institutions in the nation, according to U.S.News & World Report. The Hospital has academic affiliations with two of the nation's leading medical colleges: Weill Cornell Medical College and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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