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What Seniors Need to Know about Heat-Related Illnesses

Summer is all about spending time in the sun and enjoying outdoor activities with family and friends. However, for many seniors the summer heat can also pose some serious health risks. Every year, heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke cause the deaths of hundreds of Americans across the country, and a recent study conducted by the University of Chicago Medical Center found that approximately 40% of these heat-related fatalities were among people over the age of 65. The experts at Village Park Senior Living have been providing active seniors with independent, assisted-living, and memory care living options for several years, and we know that many don’t even realize that they need to adjust their behavior to keep themselves safe and healthy. Here are answers to a few of the most important questions about senior heat illnesses:

Why Are the Elderly More Affected by the Heat?

There are actually several different factors that make older people more prone to heat illnesses.  Most seniors tend to sweat less than younger adults, and sweating is one of the body’s most important heat-regulation mechanisms. Older bodies also store fat differently, which complicates heat regulation even further. Seniors are also more likely to have chronic medical conditions that change the body’s normal responses to heat, or to be taking medications that either impair a body’s ability to regulate temperature or inhibit perspiration. Finally, many seniors have established habits for dealing with the heat that might have been fine when they were younger but are no longer suitable for their bodies’ needs.

What is the Difference between Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke?

Heat exhaustion is a relatively mild form of heat-related illness that can develop gradually, after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids. Symptoms include muscle cramps and weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea, and even fainting. Individuals with heat exhaustion (as opposed to heat stroke) tend to have cool, moist skin, a fast, weak pulse, and rapid, shallow breathing. Heat stroke, on the other hand, is much more dangerous. It occurs when the body essentially becomes “overloaded” and loses its ability to cool itself down, as may happen when one is engaged in strenuous exercise. People who are experiencing heat stroke will have stopped sweating and their skin will be red, hot, and dry. Their pulse will be strong but very rapid, and most will complain of a throbbing headache, dizziness, and nausea. Their body temperature may rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. While heat exhaustion can be treated by moving the patient to a cooler area and giving them fluids, heat stroke may cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided. In most cases, people will experience the symptoms of heat exhaustion before they move on to full heat stroke.

What Can You Do to Avoid Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke?

The most obvious way to avoid heat-related illnesses is, of course, to avoid the heat. Try to stay in air-conditioned buildings as much as possible, complete errands before 10AM or after 6PM (when the temperature tends to be cooler), and wear light-colored, lightweight, loose-fitting clothes. If possible, avoid exercise or strenuous activity when it’s hot, and particularly when it’s humid, as high humidity will impair the body’s ability to cool itself through sweating. Finally and most importantly, be sure to stay hydrated.  Dehydration is at the root of many heat-related health problems, so make it a point to drink plenty of water or juice, even if you’re not thirsty. If your doctor generally limits the amount of fluid you drink or if you are on water pills, ask your doctor exactly how much you can safely drink while the weather is hot. Avoid alcoholic or caffeinated drinks, as they can actually make dehydration worse.

Just because you are trying to avoid the heat doesn’t mean you have to isolate yourself from the world. Professionally supervised fitness classes and engaging, social activities in comfortable, air-conditioned environments are just a few of the many amenities we offer at Village Park Senior Living. If you are interested in learning more about exciting senior living options that our available in our communities, you can contact us to schedule a tour. Our courteous staff will go over all of the options and help you determine which one might be right for you. For more special interest stories and informative articles about topics of interest to seniors and our community, you can also check out our weekly blog or follow Village Park Senior Living on Facebook and Google+ to get the latest news and updates.