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How the heat affects seniors

As temperatures rise, so do the risks of heat-related illness among older people.

No one likes to sit and swelter in the summertime heat. But for older people, hot and humid weather can be more than just uncomfortable. It can be unhealthy—even deadly.

Most people who die each year from heat-related problems are older than 50, according to the National Institute on Aging.

Seniors at risk

Normally the body cools itself by sweating, but a number of things can limit that ability, including changes linked to aging. That's why older people are among those at greatest risk for heat-related illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Age-related issues that can affect a person's ability to tolerate heat include:

Physical changes. Age-related changes in the skin or poorly working sweat glands can make it harder for older people to sweat and cool off. Also, older people may not feel the heat even when temperatures are high or may not feel thirsty when they need water.

Health troubles. Some of the health conditions that are more common among older people can increase the risk of heat-related problems. Examples include heart, lung or kidney disease; diabetes; poor circulation; or being over- or underweight.

Medications. Diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers, or medicines to treat heart trouble or high blood pressure can all make it harder for the body to cool itself.

Beat the heat

There are a variety of steps seniors can take to protect themselves from the heat. Pay particular attention when temperatures rise past 80 degrees, says the American Geriatrics Society.

Seek air-conditioning. According to the CDC, air-conditioning is the best way to avoid the heat. Being in an air-conditioned environment for even a couple hours a day will help.

If your home isn't air-conditioned, find a place that is. Options include a friend's house, shopping mall, grocery store, museum, senior center or library.

If you don't drive, ask a friend to drive you or take a taxi. Don't stand outside in the heat and wait for a bus.

Don't rely on an electric fan. A fan may make you feel a little better, but it won't cool you off sufficiently.

Stay hydrated. When it's hot, you'll need at least the recommended amount of liquids a day, if not more. Don't wait until you feel thirsty to drink.

Water, fruit or vegetable juice, or sports drinks that contain electrolytes are your best options. However, if you're on a low-salt diet, don't drink sports beverages without asking your doctor first.

Also, avoid drinks with alcohol, caffeine or large amounts of sugar. They'll cause you to lose more fluids overall, according to the CDC. And don't drink fluids that are very cold. That can cause stomach cramps.

If under normal circumstances your doctor says you should limit your fluid intake, or if you're taking water pills, ask your doctor how much you should drink during hot weather.

Get wet. Take a cool shower, bath or sponge bath.

Dress for the weather. You'll feel cooler if you wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothes.

Protect yourself. If you have to be outside, wear a hat for shade and sunscreen to prevent sunburn, and try to stay out of the sun.

Lay low. Avoid long walks or other strenuous activities, especially during the hottest part of the day.

Spotting trouble

Common signs of a heat-related illness include muscle cramps, headache, heavy sweating, dizziness and nausea. If you notice these symptoms, get out of the heat and into a cool place as soon as possible. Rest, loosen your clothes, take a cool shower or sponge bath, and drink fluids.

If you don't cool down and feel better quickly, go to the emergency room or call 911.

reviewed 9/13/2019

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