The Dog Days are Here – 6 Reasons Why Older Adults Suffer More from the Heat, and an Additional Source of Risk
As we age, our bodies change naturally, and with these changes come increased risks. Heat waves can be a serious danger for seniors, particularly those with health challenges. Here are some of the main reasons why, and some actions you can take to protect yourself during those beastly hot days.
Increased Risk Factors for Seniors:
1. People are less able to regulate their body temperature as they age – their “internal thermostats” don’t work as well. So it takes their bodies longer to adjust to a higher heat, and also longer to adjust, once the temperature is lower.
When it gets hot, your body takes longer to realize it is starting to overheat. A delay in reacting to the heat means your body temperature rises for longer than it would in a younger person. Once you are in a cooler place, it also takes your body longer to recognize and respond appropriately to the lower temperature. You are more likely to suffer from heat stroke or heat exhaustion.
- Seniors sweat less than younger people – their sweat glands don’t produce as much cooling perspiration.
3. Dilation of blood vessels:
- When you are hot, another way your body cools itself off is to have the blood vessels near the surface of the skin dilate – you get flushed. Bringing blood to the surface of the skin exposes it to more of the cooling air that flows over your skin. Skin blood flow in seniors is not as strong as for younger people, partly due to a decrease in the strength of the heart’s pumping action.
- Lack of thirst:
- Many people who are getting older don’t realize that they don’t feel thirst as much as younger people do. So you may be dehydrated, but your body doesn’t react properly by telling you that you’re thirsty. And once you do drink, again, it will take longer for you to recover from dehydration, thus increasing the risk of heat-related injuries.
- Already-existing health conditions common among older adults:
Some health conditions that affect older people also increase their risks during periods of high heat. These conditions include:
- Obesity: The reasons overweight and obese individuals suffer more from heat are not fully understood. One reason may be that they do not have as much surface area on their skin relative to their overall mass as thinner people, so the cooling effect of increased blood flow to the surface of the skin is reduced. Also, physical activity creates more body heat in someone overweight or obese, so they are more likely to experience negative effects of heat sooner than other individuals.
- Hypertension – The hearts of seniors and others with hypertension may have difficulty getting blood to the surface of the skin to cool it (and thus, the person) off.
- Diabetes (both Type 1 and Type 2) – Sweating, blood vessel dilation and other vascular impairments may all be affected by diabetes, and these difficulties may increase the risk of experiencing a heat-induced injury.
- Cardiovascular disease – again, not well-studied, but any disease that affects the heart means that extra heat-related stress on the heart likely has a larger impact than on a person who does not have cardiovascular disease. Medications that people take to control their heart disease may also have a negative effect on the heart’s ability to respond adequately to extreme heat.
- Respiratory disease – Data show that people with respiratory diseases such as asthma, COPD, lung cancer, pneumonia and more, are at a higher risk of death during a heat wave. Again, the reasons are not well understood.
- Medications taken to address the above health conditions, and others, may affect the functioning of the heart and the body’s heat-regulating systems. Older adults are more likely to have health conditions that require medications that may affect these systems.
Another Source of Risk: Socio-economic Factors
Studies have shown that other factors in a person’s situation in life increase the risk of illness and death from heat-related conditions. Lower levels of education, lack of access to transportation or air conditioning, social isolation, and being of nonwhite origin all increase risks.
How to Protect Yourself Against Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion:
- Stay indoors or out of the sun on hot days
- Drink more than you think you need to – carry a water bottle with you
- If you feel affected by the heat, take a cool shower
- Wear lightweight clothing
- Seek out an air conditioned spaces such as libraries or shopping malls
- Stay in contact with your doctor regarding your risk factors and how your medications might affect your risk.