I do believe that this summer has been one of the hottest ever recorded in our area. We just recently had a long stretch of days when the thermometer hit the upper 90s. I saw on the local weather that in the next few days, the temperature would be in the 80s. Who would have ever thought that temperatures in the 80s would be considered a cool wave!
I can remember, when I was a lot younger, having a 90 degree day was not very common. Now it seems like it is rare when we are not in the 90s during the summer.
There is actual data from scientists from Columbia University that proves that the climate has changed from 50 years ago. The scientists compiled decades of temperature data and made a variety of graphs and charts. They saw that the number of extremely hot days doubled from 1951 to 1980. I’m not going to get into the argument of why the climate has changed, just that it is a fact that it has.
Now that we know that the climate is hotter than it used to be, we need to take more precautions with the heat, especially those over the age of 65. Seniors are more prone to heat-related health problems.
There are some reasons for this:
• Older adults do not adjust as well as young people to sudden changes in temperature.
• They are more likely to have a chronic medical condition that changes normal body responses to heat.
• They are more likely to take prescription medicines that affect the body’s ability to control its temperature or sweat.
• Seniors over 65 do not sweat as much as younger adults, which is one of the body’s most important heat regulation mechanisms.
• Seniors store fat differently, which complicates heat regulation in the body further.
There are also lifestyle factors that increase the risk of developing a heat-related illness. They include:
• Salt-restricted diets
• Lack of air flow or access to air conditioning
• Drinking alcoholic beverages
• Being substantially overweight
Two of the heat-related illnesses that seniors are more prone to include heat stroke and heat exhaustion. The following will explain the different between the two conditions.
Heat exhaustion is a warning that the body is getting too hot. The person may be thirsty, confused, weak, uncoordinated, nauseous, have muscle cramps, swollen ankles, headache and sweating profusely. The body temperature is usually normal, and the pulse is normal or raised. The skin is cold and clammy. Although heat exhaustion often is caused by the body’s loss of water and salt, salt supplements should only be taken with advice from a doctor.
Heat stroke can be life threatening. Heat stroke is almost always fatal, so immediate medical attention is essential when problems first begin. A person with heat stroke has a body temperature above 104 degrees. Other symptoms may include confusion, combativeness, bizarre behavior, faintness, staggering, strong rapid pulse, dry flushed skin, lack of sweating, possible delirium or coma.
Dehydration can also be caused by heat. It occurs when you use or lose more fluid than you take in and your body doesn’t have enough water and other fluids to carry out it’s normal function. Some symptoms of dehydration include extreme thirst, less frequent urination, dark-colored urine, fatigue, dizziness and confusion.
Dehydration can lead to serious complications, which include muscle cramps, urinary and kidney problems, and seizures and can be a contributing factor to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
It is extremely important for you to avoid these heat-related illnesses. Dehydration is the root of many heat-related conditions. One of the best ways to prevent dehydration is to drink plenty of liquids. Drink plenty of liquids even if you aren’t thirsty. But remember to avoid alcoholic or caffeinated drinks as they can contribute to dehydration. Drinks with caffeine such as energy drinks act as a diuretic. These will worsen the effects of dehydration. When you sweat, you lose water and electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade contain electrolytes and can help you to recover from overexertion faster.
If you suspect that someone is suffering from a heat-related illness, move them to an air conditioned place. Urge them to lie down and rest. Remove or loosen tight-fitting clothing. Encourage them to drink fluids and apply cold water or ice packs to the skin. Get medical assistance as soon as possible.
There are many ways a senior can avoid overheating. If you have a loved one that may be at risk, please share with them these helpful ideas. It just may save their life.
Here are some ways besides drinking plenty of liquids to stay healthy when the temperature rises:
• Stay indoors during midday. The best time to run errands or to be outdoors is before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m. when the temperature tends to be cooler. I like to wait until around 7 p.m. before I start working in my garden.
• Take it easy. Avoid exercise and strenuous activity, particularly outdoors, when it is very hot outside.
• Watch the heat index. When there is a lot of moisture in the air (high humidity), the body’s ability to cool itself through sweating is impaired. The heat index factors humidity and temperature to approximate how the weather really feels. The heat index is usually announced on all the local TV weather forecasts.
• If your house is not air conditioned, you should consider finding an air conditioned place to spend time during extreme heat. Stores, the library or a movie theater are options. Seniors without convenient access to any air conditioned places could consider a cool bath or shower. Our senior center stays cool all day. This would be a wonderful place to come to keep cool.
• Wear appropriate clothing. When it’s hot outside, wear light-colored, lightweight, loose-fitting clothes and a wide-brimmed hat.
• Don’t use the stove to cook. It will make your house hotter and make your air conditioner work harder. Sandwiches and a salad is a good example of what to eat when it is too hot to cook.
Please use your air conditioner during these hot days. Some seniors will not use their cooling systems in their house because of the added electricity costs. Please don’t put yourself at risk because of this. There are organizations that can help with the cost of electricity. Please call the center and we will get you in touch with them. Or you can call 211 and they will tell you who to contact for assistance.
Sue Walker is the executive director of the Etowah Area Senior Citizens Center. She may be reached by calling 423-781-7632.