Have you ever wondered why older people find hot weather more difficult than younger or middle aged people ?
Why is that our ability to cope with the effects of high temperatures, high humidity and hot sun goes down as we age.
Studies show that it can be hard for even healthy older adults to tell when it’s too hot or if they’re dehydrated. So not staying adequately hydrated is one big reason, as not having enough water in your system can lead to feeling faint and nauseous, which can lead to dizziness and falls.
Cognitive decline exacerbates these problems. Older bodies also hold more heat than younger ones when the temperature climbs. Glands don’t release as much sweat. The heart doesn’t circulate blood as well, so less heat is released from vessels in the skin. Systems from the cardiovascular to the immune struggle to compensate.
Furthermore, older adults with dementia have special risks, because the changes in their brain may keep them from being able to communicate their distress.
Also, older adults are likely to have chronic health conditions and to take medications that contribute to heat intolerance, for example:
- Antidepressants, antihistamines, phenothiazines and anticholinergics (used for some psychiatric conditions) act on an area of the brain that controls the skin’s ability to make sweat.
- Beta blockers (heart tablets) reduce the ability of the heart and lungs to adapt to stresses including hot weather.
- Amphetamines raise body temperature.
- Diuretics (fluid tablets) act on the kidneys and encourage fluid loss. This can quickly lead to dehydration in hot weather.
- Opioids and sedatives can reduce the person’s awareness of physical discomfort, which means symptoms of heat stress may be ignored.
Furthermore, acclimation matters. In warm countries, heat tends to cause more deaths at the start of summer than at the end. More deaths occur when heat strikes areas that are unaccustomed to it, which of course is the case for heatwaves in Ireland.
Below are some tips from HSE for Older People on how to stay healthy during very hot weather:
- Try and stay cool – putting a damp cloth around your neck can help, or putting your feet in a bowl a cool water. Make sure you turn off the heating, and turn off any lights or electrical appliances that you are not using.
- Keep out the heat – increase shade or cover windows exposed to direct sunlight. Use natural ventilation such as open windows when the air feels cooler outside than inside (e.g at night) and where it is safe, secure and feasible to do so
- Drink plenty of water during the whole day. Bring water with you wherever you go. Take sips even if you don’t feel very thirsty. Drink enough during the day so your pee is a pale clear colour. If your doctor has told you not to drink too much water because of a health condition you have, get advice from them about how to stay hydrated during the heat.
- Eat small, cool meals. We often feel less hungry in hotter weather, but it is important to eat. Cool meals like salads and sandwiches can help you keep your energy up, without making your body or your kitchen too hot.
- Stay connected – write down the number of two or three relatives or friends. Ask them to check in on you. Phone calls, texts and even video calls are a very safe way of doing this. You might need help to make sure you have everything you need to stay healthy during a heatwave. If you know an older person who lives on their own, try and connect with them to make sure they have everything they need.
- Shop while the temperatures are dropped – Try and do your shopping and other chores early on in the day, before the heat is at its strongest. If you do need to be outdoors, take breaks in a shaded or air conditioned areas. If you are cooling down indoors in a public space, protect yourself by wearing your mask and keeping your distance from others.
- Dress for the weather – we are all used to layering our clothes in Ireland! But during a heatwave most people find that light-coloured loose clothing is more comfortable as well as helping them stay cool.
- If you don’t feel well, act fast to get medical help. Remember that hospital emergency departments and your GP are open for business. Never be afraid to get medical help if you need it, even during the pandemic. Your healthcare team will take every precaution to keep you safe while they look after your health.