Smarter Living: Seniors

Los Angeles smog

photo: Ben Amstutz

The muggy, summer heat is back, the air is getting grimy, and public health officials are warning us once more about the dangers of excessive heat. The consequences can be fatal: Each year more than 1,500 people in the U.S. die due to summer heat waves, and the majority of them are older Americans.

We summarize here the reasons why seniors are vulnerable to heat and air pollution as well as what can be done to reduce the risks. For the full health report, with details on the symptoms of heat exposure and related health effects, please download the PDF from the sidebar.

Why Seniors are More Susceptible to Heat

Heat is a problem because our coping mechanisms decline with age. For example, as sweat evaporates from our skin it cools the body, but as we age we sweat less. Aging blood vessels are less able to constrict and widen as they usher blood to the skin to assist in sweating and controlling temperature. "As we grow older, some of our compensatory mechanisms don't function as well as they used to," says Basil A. Eldadah, MD, PhD, a program officer for the National Institute on Aging.

Certain medications, especially diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers, and some heart and high blood pressure medicines, can also impair the ability to sweat or regulate body temperature.

Furthermore, seniors tend to have medical conditions -- such as heart disease and chronic lung conditions -- that can predispose them to harm when they encounter stresses such as heat and pollution, says Eldadah. Both the heart and lungs help with regulating temperature. Our hearts pump blood as needed toward the skin where it releases heat, and our lungs drive out excess heat with every exhalation.

A Warmer Future

Global climate change may make heat-related and pollution-related heart problems increasingly common. Considering that more people already die during "excessive heat events" than die from hurricanes, tornadoes, and other severe weather events, climate change could become a very real threat to our health in the near future.

What You Can Do

Check the Air Quality Index in your area at airnow.gov.

Take steps to avoid overheating. When hot weather is forecast, find a cool location where you can escape the heat. If you do not have an air conditioner, seek cool air at a shopping center, movie theatre, or public library. During heat waves, your town or city may set up a "cooling center" where you can go to find relief from the heat. A cool shower can provide relief on hot days.

Take it easy and don't engage in strenuous activity. If you are outdoors, seek shade and a park bench. Drink liquids and shed extra layers of clothing. Apply cold, wet cloths to the wrists, neck, armpits, and groin, where blood passes near the surface.

Check on elderly or at-risk friends and neighbors regularly -- or ask someone to look in on you if you are vulnerable to heat.

Drink plenty of water or other non-caffeinated and non-alcoholic beverages (consuming alcohol can make it harder for your body to handle the heat.) However, some people with heart disease, kidney problems, or other medical conditions, as well as people taking certain medications, may need to watch their fluid intake, so talk to your doctor about how much you should drink.

Keep your home cool during heat waves. Close shutters and curtains during the day to keep the sun out. Open windows to let in cool air at night and in the early morning. Consider installing ceiling fans to circulate air so that you don't rely so heavily on the air conditioner. See "Low-Cost Cooling" for more ideas.

Upgrade your air conditioner or other cooling system if it is seven or more years old. This will save you money and reduce energy demand during the hottest months, thereby reducing heat-trapping emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming. Also, check your ducts to make sure cool air isn't leaking into an unused basement or crawl space. Tax credits may be available to help you offset the costs.

Try to use less gasoline and electricity: Automobiles and power plants are major contributors to air pollution. See "Commuting Smarter" and "Home Energy Audit" for money-saving ideas on reducing your energy consumption.

Learn More

NRDC: Low-Cost Cooling

EPA Factsheet: Planning for Excessive Heat Events Information for Older Adults and Family Caregivers. October 2007

EPA Factsheet: Environmental Hazards Weigh Heavy on the Heart Information for Older Adults and Their Caregivers. August 2009

CDC: Heat Stress in the Elderly.

last revised 7/7/2011

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