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Protecting Older Individuals from Heat Related Illnesses

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Given Pennsylvania’s most recent heat wave, it is more important than ever to make sure that you and your loved ones are protected from heat related illnesses. This may not come as a surprise to you, but elderly individuals, those over the age of 65, are more prone to heat related illnesses than their younger counter parts.

Older bodies do not adjust as well to changes in their surroundings. Additionally, underlying medical conditions and prescription medications may impair an older body’s ability to regulate internal temperature or respond to heat. In fact, according to a University of Chicago Medical Center study, 40% of heath related deaths in the United States occurred in individuals over the age of 65.

As a loved one or caregiver, you may be wondering what steps can be taken to prevent these heat related illnesses. The first step is to know the symptoms and warning signs so early action can be taken.

The most common ailment related to too much time in the sun is a heat stroke. A heat stroke occurs when your body is unable to control its temperature and it rises to 106 degrees Fahrenheit, or higher, in a matter of 10 or 15 minutes. Signs often include dizziness, headache, red dry skin with no sweating, and a strong pulse.

A milder form of a heat stroke, known as heat exhaustion, can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate hydration. Signs of heat exhaustion include tiredness, muscle cramps, vomiting, shallow breathing, and faintness.

Second, make sure you are visiting older individuals often to watch for these signs. Ideally, during extreme temperatures, you should be visiting your loved one once or twice a day. However, visiting this often it is not always practical for loved ones who live out of the area. In those situations, you may want to ask a neighbor or friend to do the check-ups for you and report back on the older individual’s health status.

Three, encourage older individuals to stay in air conditioning as much as possible, reduce activity level, and drink plenty of liquids.

Obviously, the ideal situation would be for older adults to stay in air-conditioned buildings as much as possible. Malls, libraries, movie theatres, senior centers, churches or other places of worship are good options for those who are not fortunate enough to have air-conditioning in their home. However, if these are not an option, you can contact your local health department to locate an appropriate shelter in your area.

Try to encourage them to avoid unnecessary physical activity. Their afternoon strolls around the neighborhood can wait until a cooler day. Particularly they should avoid outdoor activity during the mid-day hours, between 10am and 6pm

Additionally, wearing loose, light weight clothing helps cool off the body. Older individuals should be drinking plenty of liquids. It is not enough to only drink when you are thirsty. Your body needs a steady stream of liquids to maintain the appropriate level of hydration.

Fourth, keep up to date on the weather forecast in your area. Not only is it important to be aware of the temperature, but you also want to keep an eye out for the heat index. The heat index takes in to account the actual temperature as well as what it really feels like given the presence of moisture in the air. When there is a lot of moisture in the air, the body is often not able to cool itself down by sweating

Check your local news for updates and be prepared for any uncharacteristic weather changes.

If you see an elderly individual exhibiting any of these warning signs, place a cool, damp cloth on them and provide liquids. If the symptoms persist, seek medical attention immediately. For more information on how to protect older adults from heat-related health problems, visit