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Fun in the Sun? Keep Signs of Heat-Related Illness in Mind this Summer

June 26, 2024   |   Lindsay Clarke   |   Other Diseases/Conditions of Aging, Blog

Extreme heat events are becoming more and more common, and increasingly intense. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), heat waves in the U.S. have gone from an average of two per year in the 1960s, to six per year in the 2010s and 2020s. And unfortunately, our planet just broke records and endured its 12 hottest consecutive months.

Exposure to extreme heat is dangerous for everyone, but older adults are more likely to die from heat-related events. In fact, more than 80% of people who die from heat-related causes in the U.S. are over the age of 60.

Certain chronic illnesses and medications, and changes to the body with age, make it harder for our bodies to adapt to heat changes over time. While sweating releases heat through evaporation, our ability to sweat goes down with age. Our body also pumps more blood to the surface to cool us when our core temperate is up, but that extra pumping increases the load to the heart. More older adults have existing cardiovascular disease, and that extra load might be too much for older hearts to handle. Not to mention that the medications that people take to manage cardiovascular diseases, are often dehydrating which in turn increases heat-related illness risks.

Staying safe during extreme heat can include:

  • Staying in air-conditioning as much as possible, and not relying on fans as your main cooling source
  • Drinking more water and not waiting until you’re thirsty to get a drink
  • Eating foods high in water like fruits
  • Avoiding the stove or oven to cook since it adds heat to the house
  • Wearing loose, lightweight, and light-colored clothing
  • Taking cool baths or showers
  • Avoiding strenuous activities and taking lots of breaks
  • Limiting outdoor activities to mornings and evenings when it’s cooler
  • Getting plenty of rest

It’s important to listen to your body. The warning signs of heat-related illness include:

  • Sudden dizziness
  • Cramps
  • Edema, or swelling in the ankles or legs
  • Heat exhaustion: thirst, dizziness, weakness, lack of coordination, and nauseousness
  • Heat stroke: fainting, changes in behavior, high temperature, dry skin, strong and rapid pulse OR a slow and weak pulse, and stopping sweating. Heat stroke is a medical emergency.

But these signs of dangerous heat-related illness can be harder to self-identify in older adults. Because many don’t sense heat danger the same way younger adults do. For example, older adults may sit in the heat longer and not realize there’s a problem until the situation is more serious. Since older adults are more likely to live alone and be socially isolated, they might end up in a serious situation without anyone knowing.

Many cities are responding to the increasing heat by creating more cooling centers, services to check on older adults, and resources to raise awareness about the symptoms of heat-related illness. This year on May 31st—National Heat Awareness Day—the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched a new Heat and Health Tracker that provides information on heat-health outcomes at the community level. You can check your zip code for heat-related illnesses and deaths, and heat exposure data. The hope is that this tool will allow communities to prioritize investments in preventing heat-related deaths where people are most at risk.

But we still need to look out for each other. So, this summer when the temperatures soar, make sure you’re checking in on your friends and loved ones. If you or someone you know needs to get to a cool location, check out your local library, recreation center, or shopping mall. You can also call your state’s 211 number to find special cooling facilities.

Stay cool out there.

Lindsay Clarke serves as the Alliance’s Senior Vice President of Health Education and Advocacy.

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