The summer is often a time of fun in the outdoors, filled with family outings, barbecues, vacations and more! Summer, can also be an extremely dangerous time for seniors. While everyone needs to be cognizant of the potential for heat-related problems, the elderly are especially susceptible to many of these and their potential for causing harm is substantially increased in seniors.
One of the main reasons for this is that seniors often lose the ability to notice subtle changes in body temperature and exhibit decreased autonomic cooling responses. We may think that we feel fine, but, in fact, we are already overheated and now on our way to dehydration and other serious problems. A decreased awareness of thirst, something that also tends to come with aging, increases the likelihood of seniors dehydrating as their body temperature rises.
A number of medications frequently prescribed to the elderly (such as diuretics, corticosteroids, and certain antibiotics) can cause or exacerbate an imbalance in an individual’s blood electrolyte levels. Along with decreased thirst awareness, this means that many seniors are more at risk for dehydration when in prolonged heat.
The decrease in cooling processes in the elderly also means that seniors have a decreased ability to cool themselves down by sweating, particularly when we have high humidity or high levels of moisture in the air. Blood circulation problems can also cause issues with thermoregulation, increasing the risk of overheating. So special care and caution must be shown when venturing outdoors.
As we grow older we are more prone to developing cancers, so we need to be more diligent when it comes to sunscreen and skin coverage. Many common over the counter and prescription medications increase our chances of burning more easily while in the sun, such as antibiotics and anti inflammatories.
High pollen levels can negatively effect the respiratory system and are more likely to cause health issues for seniors. Allergies can develop at any age and can be extremely dangerous for the elderly, especially those with cardiovascular issues. It is best to contact your doctor immediately for treatment if allergy symptoms develop. Your physician can advise on treatments other than antihistamines, as these may not be appropriate due to the potential side effects that are often an issue in older adults. Allergies need to controlled properly as if not addressed they can lead to chronic pulmonary problems.
Oftentimes, we assume that we can be out in the heat for extended periods of time without having issues. This, however, is not the case as we grow older, and we therefore need to take more time and focus attention on the basics.
So get out there and enjoy the fun, but in a safe way by following these simple suggestions.
1. Dress for the weather! Choose soft, lightweight, loose fitting fabrics that are moisture wicking in warmer weather. If planning to be in the sun, wear a large brimmed hat or bring a sun umbrella to shield yourself from excess rays.
2. Drink! Always have fluids on hand. Hydration is a combination of fluids and electrolytes. A low sugar sports drink with electrolytes should be kept on hand along with water. On warmer days, the levels of electrolytes in our body can quickly become out of balance. It is therefore important to drink a combination of water and electrolyte-based fluids while out and about!
3. Allergens! Environmental allergies and pollen can be a challenge for everyone, but these can be an extreme problem and strain on the respiratory systems of the elderly. Check the national weather center and pollen count during key months. Remember the highest counts are in the early am so avoid going out before 10 am. Protect yourself by wearing sunglasses or even a face mask if having to go out during peak times. Daily bathing and more frequent washing of sheets and towels in hot water is essential. Often times we may want to be outside, but honestly as we get older we need to occasionally stay indoors or change our plans to accommodate our health needs! So set your air conditioner to recirculate and keep your doors and windows shut from the challenges of the great outdoors!
4. Avoid extreme heat and direct sun! Do not plan outings to begin at noon or during peak afternoon hours. Take a walk in the mid morning or plan a late afternoon outing with family. Stay in the shade rather than in the direct sun when outside. Apply sunscreen prior to going out in the sun and reapply every two hours.
5. Monitor the weather! Often times people forget about the impact that high humidity has upon our bodies! On high humidity days, there is high moisture in their air, and the body's ability to cool itself down by sweating is impaired. Watch the heat index which factors humidity and temperature as this will give you the best indication of the weather and outside safety!
6. Change things up! Explore some new activities for warmer days. If you do not have air condition seek it out! Go to an air conditioned theater to see a movie, museums, libraries, take your usual walk in an air conditioned shopping mall, or try going to an indoor pool for a cool swim. When having to be outside for short periods of time, take a small motorized fan, mister or sit in the shade, under an outdoor ceiling fan. Eat cooler, lighter meals and foods such as fruit, salads, and yogurt, all based on your dietary needs and recommendations. At the end of the day take a cool shower or bath to bring your body temperature down before bedtime.
7. Know your limits!!! Do not engage in strenuous activity on hot days! Play it safe and pace yourself! If you do not feel well, trust your instincts, get out of the heat and seek immediate medical attention!
Have fun, but on your terms to ensure health and safety!