One of the best definitions that Andy Duxbury has ever heard about what it means to age is this: Aging is a loss in ability to adapt to change. Duxbury, a physician in the Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics and Palliative Care at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), says it’s more than an inability to understand Twitter, distaste for modern music or even a desire for the good old days. It also means that seniors can’t physically adapt to changing environmental conditions — and that means the heat of summer can be dangerous for them.
“Seniors are among the most vulnerable groups in the population to heat stress,” Duxbury said. “Heat waves often kill a disproportionate number.”
A rare 2003 heat wave in Europe killed nearly 15,000 people in France, most of them elderly. A 1995 heat wave in Chicago killed 750 people, again most of them seniors.
Duxbury says the reasons that seniors are vulnerable to heat stress run a gamut from the physical inability to regulate body temperature to economic, medical and social factors:
- Seniors don’t perspire as easily they did when they were younger, so they don’t self-cool. They also are less likely to feel discomfort from extreme heat and act to cool themselves until it’s too late.
- Seniors are less like to stay hydrated. Their thirst mechanism no longer responds as it did in younger days. And for seniors with continence issues, drinking a lot of water is often the last thing they want to do.
- Seniors on fixed incomes may not be able to pay a high power bill. They might not want to open the door and windows if they are worried about crime. And they may lack the mobility of younger folks who can head to the mall or movie theatre to get some relief from high temperatures.
Duxbury says younger family and friends need to keep a sharp eye on seniors when the temperature rises. He suggests checking on the environment that senior lives in. Is the house or apartment cool enough?
“If you are checking in from out of town, don’t accept Grandma saying ‘No, dearie, I’m fine’ on the phone,” Duxbury said. “Listen for signs of confusion, which is often the first indication of heat illness.”
Treatment for heat-related illness for seniors is the same for everyone. Give fluids and get the individual to a cool environment. Seek medical treatment if the individual shows signs of confusion, has a rapid pulse or passes out.
“Prevention is far and away the best treatment for heat-related illness in the elderly,” said Duxbury. “Be aware and alert for older neighbors and family members as summer progresses.”