Warm days and long periods of sunlight can be great for spending time outdoors, relaxing, vacationing and socializing with friends and neighbors, offering plenty of reasons to enjoy summer weather.
However, many potential dangers arise during the summer months and periods of extreme heat, particularly for older adults. Older individuals and people living with chronic medical conditions experience a high risk of developing heat-related illnesses. Due to natural changes that occur to the human body as one ages, older adults do not adjust as well as younger people to changes in temperature and are more susceptible to health complications.
Several kinds of heat-related illness result from heat exposure and the body overheating, ranging from minor illnesses to serious medical emergencies. Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related health condition. It occurs when one’s body temperature rises rapidly and is unable to cool down. The abnormally high body temperature may damage the brain or other vital organs. Symptoms of heat stroke include high body temperature, nausea, confusion, flushed skin, rapid breathing and a throbbing headache. Heat rash and heat cramps, two less severe heat-related illnesses, can progress to heat stroke if not addressed.
The human body typically deals with high temperatures by cooling itself through the evaporation of sweat. However, many chronic health conditions affect the body’s normal response to temperature variation, including high blood pressure, poor blood circulation and heart, lung and kidney diseases. Older adults are also more likely to take medications that affect the body’s ability to control temperature and sweat, including many diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers and blood pressure medications.
Sun exposure also poses health risks that can be especially harmful to older adults. More people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined. Most skin cancer is highly curable, though can spread to other parts of the body if not treated. Beyond damaging the skin, sunburn can affect a body’s ability to cool itself and can also lead to dehydration.
It is important to stay well hydrated during the summer months. Dehydration can occur when there is not sufficient water in the body. It can lead to weakness, fatigue, headaches and dizziness. The risk for dehydration increases in hot temperatures and time spent outdoors as one loses water through sweating. Individuals should be careful about drinking alcohol during periods of high temperatures. Since it is a diuretic, alcohol can contribute to dehydration and the body’s ability to regulate its temperature.
People can reduce their risk of heat-related health complications by limiting their time spent in the heat. Going out in the morning or evening, when the temperature is a bit cooler, is safer than going out in the mid-day sun. While exercise obviously has very important health benefits, one should keep from exercising outside or engaging in physical activity during high temperatures.
For those who do not have air conditioning in their homes, it is advisable to go to public places with air conditioning on particularly hot days. Even a couple hours spent in air conditioning can help the body to stay cooler when back out in the heat. Senior centers and public libraries, for example, offer air-conditioned spaces where older individuals can spend time for free.
The Philadelphia Corporation for Aging opens a “Heat Line” during periods of extreme heat. Counselors are available to provide information about recommended air-conditioned locations and precautions that individuals can take against the heat. The PCA Heat Line can be reached at 215-765-9040.
There are also resources available to help older adults to keep their homes cooler. The Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps income-eligible older adults to cover the cost of air conditioners and utility bills. Individuals interested in enrolling can call 1-866-674-6327 to learn more about eligibility and enrollment opportunities.
While the summer heat does pose risks to older adults, there are still many ways to safely enjoy the summer weather. Understanding the risks that are present with the heat and taking the necessary precautions to stay safe in the high temperatures can allow one to enjoy all that summer has to offer.