Every summer you probably find yourself commenting on the heat. It’s just a thing that we do, when chatting with neighbors or trying to justify a nap in the shade. But this summer, the heat really is worth talking about and a likely sign of things to come. Thanks to climate change, July 2023 was Earth’s hottest month ever — as in possibly in the last 100,000 years. According to the Washington Post, every day in July set records for average global annual temperatures, and 17 days in July have been hotter than any other in more than 40 years of global observations. This has meant scorching temperatures in the South and Southwest, flooding in Vermont, and abnormally warm ocean waters that could have unprecedented, catastrophic ramifications.
There’s more bad news: most people who die from the heat are over the age of 50, according to the National Institute on Aging. That is because as we age, our body’s ability to deal with heat is negatively impacted in several ways, leaving us more vulnerable to its effects. This may all sound a bit doomsdayish, but don’t worry. You can take several easy precautions when heat waves hit to help keep you out of harm’s way.
Why Heat is a Health Risk for Older Adults
Temperature Moderation Becomes More Difficult
Hot weather is only a problem if your body can’t cool itself. Unfortunately, several things happen as we age that make it harder for our bodies to do so. For one thing, sweat glands become less effective with age; they produce less sweat, less quickly. Sweat cools our bodies through the process of evaporation — and if there is less sweat to evaporate, we can’t cool as well.
In addition, many older adults are on medications that interfere with how effectively the body sweats or handles heat. Some antihistamines, antidepressants, blood pressure medications, and medications used to treat an overactive bladder can all hinder the body’s ability to cool itself.
Another way that our body can cool itself is by increasing blood flow to the skin to push heat away from our core. But if you have heart disease of any kind — and almost 20 million adults in the US do — that puts extra stress on an already compromised organ.
Hydration is Harder
Staying hydrated is essential for everyone. Your body uses water in almost every cellular function to keep your organs working, and in hot weather, you need even more water to produce the sweat that cools your body. Older adults face several disadvantages when it comes to staying hydrated. For one, they experience a decreased sense of thirst. Secondly, those pesky medications that become more commonly prescribed as we get older (like those that treat high blood pressure) often have the added effect of drawing fluid from the body.
Dehydration puts a ton of strain on your kidneys, which will struggle to keep your body’s fluids in check. And if you’re one of the 40% of adults over the age of 65 who already have kidney disease, dehydration can lead to an extremely problematic domino effect throughout your body.
Ways to Stay Safe
Thankfully, you can prevent yourself from reaching dangerous levels of dehydration or heat exhaustion by taking a few simple steps.
Pay Attention to Weather Forecasts
Everyone knows someone who obsessively checks the weather. Now is the time to kindly ask them to skip their diatribe on rainfall amounts and report on humidity levels. Alternatively, you can watch the news, look up forecasts online, or download a reliable app to your smartphone for immediate, up-to-date weather information. The heat index — air temperature combined with relative humidity — is what you want to pay attention to. Hot temperatures are problematic, but it is really the humidity that plays a bigger role. (Sweat can’t evaporate as much or as quickly if the air is wet — and if the sweat doesn’t evaporate, it won’t cool you down.) A basic rule of thumb is to start taking extra caution when the temperatures are above 85℉ and humid.
Research Your Prescriptions
As we’ve mentioned, certain common medications can affect your body’s ability to regulate its own temperature and hydration levels. It would be a good idea to create a list of all the medications you take on a regular basis and then discuss them with your doctor or pharmacist in regards to this aspect. Even an over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen can have an impact.
We get it: drinking water isn’t always appealing, but hydration really is essential to keeping your body healthy and safe. Something that may not occur to you is that you need to drink before you feel thirsty. Thirst is the body’s signal that you’re already dehydrated, so if you’re thirsty you’re behind the game. One way to keep track (especially if you might have a decreased sense of thirst to begin with) is to check the color of your urine. As one expert says, “Thumbs up if it’s pale yellow, bottoms up if it’s dark yellow or orange.”
If water is too boring to motivate you, get creative. Cold fruit or fruit juice can be hydrating, or you could try any of the flavored seltzers that are all the rage. (Just remember: alcohol and caffeine are diuretics. Yes, you drink them, but they don’t aid in hydration.)
Find Ways to Keep Cool
By now, you’re probably no stranger to methods you can use to keep cool, even when the temps are soaring. Air conditioning is ideal, but failing that some well-placed fans can make a big difference. (Combining fans and A/C is probably your best bet, in fact.) Failing those, you can take a cool shower or bath to cool your body temperature in a pinch.
If you don’t have air conditioning, be sure to keep an eye on your thermostat throughout the day. If the temperatures are hotter than our body temp (98.6 ℉), using a fan won’t be all that effective in keeping you cool. (In fact, they’ll create a kind of natural convection oven.) If your thermostat is over 80 degrees, it’s time to do something, like relocating to a cooler level in your home or going elsewhere.
Have a Back-up Plan
Nothing is worse than when the power goes out during a heat wave, so try to have a back-up plan for when your cooling methods go kaput. Touch base with local family or close friends to see if they’d be willing to host you (and any pets!) in the event of an emergency. Also, scout out the public places near you that you could retreat to for stretches of time, such as a mall, church, or library.
During heat waves, many communities even set up cooling centers to provide a safe place for people to cool down. It’s a great idea to find out where these would be (and who runs them) so that you could easily use them in the future. These are often the same places that act as centers in power outages and other catastrophes.
Recognize Warning Signs of Heat Illness
Finally, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the warning signs that you (or someone else) are overheating. If you experience any symptoms of heat exhaustion, you should get to a cool, air-conditioned space, drink water, and take a cool shower or use a cool compress on the back of your neck. If you think you or someone else could be experiencing heat stroke, head to the ER immediately.
Heat Exhaustion Symptoms:
- Faint or dizzy
- Excessive sweating
- Cool, pale, clammy skin
- Nausea or vomiting
- Rapid, weak pulse
- Muscle cramps
Heat Stroke Symptoms:
- Headache or confusion
- No sweating
- Body temperature above 103℉
- Red, hot, dry skin
- Nausea or vomiting
- Rapid, strong pulse
- Loss of consciousness