Summer Heat Safety
The natural ability of the human body to regulate itself and maintain a stable body temperature or thermoregulation changes with age. As a result, older adults are vulnerable to injury when exposed to extreme hot or cold conditions.
During the summer months, excessive heat is dangerous and poses safety and health risks to older people due to the body’s compromised ability to adjust to the climate. According to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), excessive heat is defined as periods when “temperatures reach 10 degrees Fahrenheit or more above the average high temperature for a region.”1
More people die annually from excess heat than from the combination of tornadoes, hurricanes, lightening, floods and earthquakes. In fact, the recent heat waves have taken the lives of about 36,000 people in the U.S. and Europe, most of whom were 65 years or older.2
Did you know that as a result of body weight, inactivity, reduced muscle mass and changes to the skin, many older adults are more sensitive to air temperature and are less insulated from the cold and less resilient to the heat?
Age-related risk factors include:3,4
- Disease – including cardiovascular and endocrine
- Medications and alcohol
- Mental disorders
- Self-care deficits
Age-related thermoregulation risks:
- Decreases in subcutaneous fat
- Ability to adjust to heat
- Decreased sweating
- Decreased peripheral circulation
- Ineffective vasoconstriction.5
Health care professionals are aware of heat related illness (e.g., heat exhaustion, heat cramps) and know that death may occur from heat stroke when the body’s cooling mechanism fails. In addition to considering the risk factors cited earlier, professionals are encouraged to pose several questions to older adults and family members in an attempt to assess the risk for heat injury.
- “Does the older adult have any specific health issues that surface in hot weather?
- Is the older person able to keep the house or room comfortable in summer?
- Does the person have challenges in coping with summer heat?
- Are there difficulties paying utility bills?
- Is there a plan to protect the person during summer heat?
- Has the older adult ever been medically treated for heat injury?
- Has the older adult ever fallen and not been able to get up or get help?”6
To reduce the chance of heat related injury, older adults exposed to excessive heat or living in a warm climate should be encouraged to take precautionary measures including:
- Stay at home, if air conditioned, or go to an air conditioned environment (e.g. shopping center, movie theatre, designated cooling center).
- Use fans to keep the air circulating (According to the EPA, fans do not prevent heat related injury when the temperature reaches 90 degrees.)
- Drink lots of fluids – avoid caffeine, alcohol and beverages with excess sugar.
- Take a cool shower or bath and/or put a cold compress on your forehead and wrists.
- Wear loose fitting light-weight and light colored clothing.
Recommended Resources – Evelyn’s Picks
- Heat Stress in the Elderly, Center for Disease Control and Prevention
- 8 Simple Steps for Older Adults and Beat the Heat (poster), Environmental Protection Agency
- “It’s Too Darn Hot”: Planning for Excessive Heat Events, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
- Extreme Heat: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety, Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Miller, C. (2009). Nursing for Wellness in Older Adults, 5th Ed. New York: Lippincott, Williams, Wilkins
GERO GEMS are a monthly publication of the Center for Aging with Dignity. Compiled by Evelyn Fitzwater, Gero Gems is designed to raise awareness of aging and related issues impacting health care professionals and our society as a whole.
For more information:
Go to the Senior Health health topic.