After age 65, your body can't adjust to changes in air temperature—especially heat—as quickly as it did when you were younger. That puts you at risk for heat-related illnesses.
You also may be at greater risk for heat-related illnesses if you have a chronic health condition or take certain medicines that interfere with normal body response to heat. Some medicines also restrict the body's ability to sweat.
But you can still enjoy a safe summer by taking a few precautions when it gets hot.
Unless your healthcare provider has told you to limit your fluids, drink plenty of cool liquids like water, sports drinks, or fruit and vegetable juices. Don't wait until you're thirsty. Don't drink alcohol, because you'll lose much of the fluid it offers. Also don't have large amounts of caffeine.
Ways to keep cool
If you can't afford air conditioning:
- Open your windows at night.
- Create a cross breeze by opening windows on opposite sides of the room or house.
- Cover windows when they're in direct sunlight. Keep curtains, shades, or blinds drawn during the hottest part of the day.
- Dampen your clothing with water and sit in the breeze from a fan.
- Spend at least 2 hours a day (the hottest part, if possible) in an air-conditioned place like a library, senior center, or friend's house.
Ask your local area agency on aging if there's a program that gives window air conditioners to seniors who qualify. If you can't afford to run your air conditioner, ask your local area agency on aging or senior center if they know of programs that can help you with cooling bills.
- Ask a friend or relative to drive you to a cool place on very hot days if you don't drive. Many towns or counties, area agencies, religious groups, and senior centers also supply these services. Don't stand outside waiting for a bus.
- Dress for the weather. Some people find natural fabrics like cotton to be cooler than synthetic fibers. Light-colored clothes feel cooler than dark colors. If you aren't sure what to wear, ask a friend or family member for help.
- Don't try to exercise, walk long distances, or do a lot when it's hot. The best time to exercise outside is early in the morning, before it gets too hot, or in the afternoon after the sun sets.
- Walk indoors in public places such as the mall or a walking path at a gym.
- Avoid the sun.
- Take cool baths or showers.
- Don't go to crowded places when it's hot outside.
- Listen to weather and news reports. In times of extreme heat, there will often be local sites where people can go to cool down.
Who's at risk?
Your health and lifestyle may raise the threat of a heat-related illness. These health factors may increase your risk:
- Poor circulation, inefficient sweat glands, and changes in the skin caused by normal aging
- Heart, lung, and kidney diseases, as well as any illness that causes weakness or fever
- High blood pressure or other conditions that need changes in diet. For example, people on low-salt diets may face an added risk (but don't use salt pills without asking your healthcare provider)
- The inability to sweat caused by some drugs. These include diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers, and certain heart and blood pressure medicines
- Taking several drugs at once for various conditions. Don’t just stop taking them: Talk with your healthcare provider
- Being substantially overweight or underweight
- Drinking alcoholic beverages
How to handle heat illnesses
Heat stress, heat tiredness, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are all forms of hyperthermia, the general name for a range of heat-related illnesses. Symptoms may include:
- Skin that is dry (no sweating), hot, and red
- Muscle spasms
- Extreme tiredness after exposure to heat
If you think someone has a heat-related illness:
- Get the victim out of the sun and into a cool place—preferably one that is air-conditioned.
- Offer fluids, but not alcohol or caffeine. Water, sports drinks, and fruit and vegetable juices are best.
- Encourage the person to sponge off with cool water.
- Urge the person to lie down and rest, preferably in a cool place.
When to seek medical attention
Seek emergency medical attention if you suspect heatstroke. Possible symptoms of heat stroke include:
- Confusion or agitation
- Sluggishness or extreme tiredness
- Hot, dry skin that is flushed but not sweaty
- High body temperature
- Loss of consciousness
- Rapid heartbeat
Dr. Vernilyn Juan specializes in Family Medicine at Crescent City Physicians, Inc., a subsidiary of Touro Infirmary. She received her Doctorate of Medicine from the University of the City of Manila College of Medicine in the Philippines, and completed her residency at the University of Philippines. As a Primary Care Physician, Dr. Juan treats patients of all ages, through every stage of life.