Hot weather can be a killer, especially for older people.
An estimated 600 deaths each year are the result of direct and indirect exposure to excessive heat, and of those deaths, adults over age 65 are several times more likely to die of heat-related cardiovascular disease than the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Heat-related illness and death among the elderly often begins with dehydration, says Dr. Sonia R. Sehgal, a UCI Health specialist in geriatric medicine and a UCI School of Medicine professor.
At risk for dehydration
That’s because our bodies conserve less fluid as we age, making older people more susceptible during heat waves. Sehgal explains the factors that contribute to this vulnerability:
- Not only do the body’s fluid reserves become smaller, our ability to recognize when we’re thirsty also is blunted.
- Medications many seniors take — such as diuretics for high blood pressure — increase the risk of dehydration.
- Some chronic conditions exacerbate the problem, such as diabetes, which causes the kidneys to work harder to eliminate excess blood sugar
- Other conditions, such as dementia, make it difficult for people to express their need for more fluids.
Protect yourself when it’s hot
When the temperatures peak during summertime, Sehgal says it’s important that seniors take precautions against heat-related illness. For starters, she recommends monitoring your fluid levels and offers the following tips:
- Drink plenty of water and track how much fluid you’re taking in. Although the standard recommendation is six to eight glasses a day, that may not be enough for some people and too much for others.
- Eat foods with a lot of natural liquid, such as watermelon, oranges and some vegetables.
- Some people may also need electrolyte-rich drinks that can restore optimal potassium and sodium levels.
Sehgal recommends that people consult their doctors to find the right fluid balance for them.
Protect yourself from the elements
Other strategies to combat heat-related problems include managing your environment.
- Wear loose-fitting, breathable clothing made of natural fibers.
- Use a mister fan to cool off.
- Shower, bathe or sponge off with cool water.
- Lie down and rest in a cool place if you are feeling overheated.
Sehgal says it’s also vital to keep tabs on your blood pressure to make sure it isn’t dropping significantly.
Limit outdoor activities
When it’s hot outside, it’s best to exercise in a gym or take mall-walks, she says.
If you don’t have home air-conditioning, consider spending the hottest part of the day in such places as:
- Movie theaters
Many communities also sponsor cooling centers during heat waves. The California Department of Public Health has additional information and resources.
Recognizing the signs
Sehgal says that we all should be aware of the signs of dehydration and heat-related illness, and pay particular attention to the most vulnerable: children under age 4 and older adults.
People who care for seniors — particularly those who are unable to communicate their needs — should watch for:
- Dry skin, lips or mouth
- Difficulty speaking owing to lack of hydration
- Alternatively, the skin may feel damp from perspiration or warm to the touch
- Dark-colored urine
Seeking medical help
When is it time to get medical attention?
Confusion, headaches, dizziness and general weakness can be the first tell-tale signs of heat exhaustion, of your body’s inability to cool itself. That, Sehgal says, means it is time to see a doctor.