Today’s older adults are more active than ever. Popular hobbies such as golfing, biking, and gardening provide daily opportunities to exercise and socialize, and there’s no better time to enjoy these outdoor activities than during the summer months.
However, as temperatures rise, the effects of heat on the human body can be severe. When you were young, you probably didn’t give the heat much thought – but, as an older adult, you should consider its possible impact on you and practice summer heat safety.
As we age, our bodies become less efficient at regulating temperature. People over 65 do not sweat as much as younger people. Also, seniors produce significantly less blood flow to the skin’s surface area to cool themselves.
So, how do you beat the heat?
You should wear a broad-brimmed hat while out during the day, and stay out of the sun when it is at its strongest — between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Take your walk or ride your bike at alternative times, and search out a shaded route to follow.
Keep at your indoor physical activities or add new ones — yoga, balance, and resistance training, for example. Consider indoor cardio exercise routines like this one from SilverSneakers.
Older adults working outdoors should practice heat safety by taking frequent breaks and cooling off in the shade, or finding some air conditioning. Gardening is a great physical activity if seniors don’t work for too long in the heat.
Whatever seniors do during the day, they should use sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends a water-resistant sunscreen with a broad spectrum (protects against UVA and UVB rays) of SPF 30 or higher. The sunscreen should be applied every couple of hours, and more often if you are swimming or sweating.
Also, older adults should dress in lighter colors — dark clothes absorb heat. Loose clothing and lighter fabrics will let cooling air circulate over the skin.
Even when seniors are not physically active during the summer, they should be drinking water regularly. Drink fluids at every meal, and sip fluids throughout the day. Avoid alcohol, as it dehydrates the body.
You should be aware that many of the medications used to treat chronic conditions further reduce the body’s ability to adjust to heat, making heat safety an even larger concern. For example, chronic kidney disease, heart failure, and high blood pressure are often treated with diuretics (also called water pills). Diuretics increase the amount of water and salt expelled from the body, which can lead to dehydration — a major problem when it comes to handling the heat.
Seniors should talk with their physician about how their medications may affect their ability to regulate their body temperature.
Know the Signs of Heat Illness
Heat exhaustion, the milder form of heat-related illness, can produce any of the following symptoms:
- Heavy sweating
- Muscle cramps
- Nausea or vomiting
- Dark urine
- Cool, moist skin
If you’re experiencing heat exhaustion, seek rest in the shade. Drink cool fluids like water or sports drinks (no alcohol). Take a cool shower, soak in a cool bath, or place towels soaked in cool water on your skin. Loosen clothing.
Severe cases may lead to heat stroke, which has more serious symptoms:
- Dry, hot skin (no sweating)
- Rapid, weak pulse
- Rapid breathing
- Slurred speech
- Nausea and vomiting
- Flushed skin
- Body temperature above 103 degrees F
- Unconsciousness (fainting may be the first sign in older adults)
Call 911 immediately if a person is exhibiting these symptoms, then cool the victim as best you can. Move them to a shady spot or into an air-conditioned space. Wet the skin. Fan them while misting them with cool water. Place ice packs or cool wet towels on the person’s neck, armpits and groin. Cover with cool damp sheets. Let the person drink cool water if they are able — but not too cold, as this may cause stomach cramps.
Everyone is safer outdoors from exposure to COVID, even as infection rates are dropping due to vaccinations. Plus, the outdoors have plenty of health benefits to offer when seniors take the proper precautions.
There’s no need to hide under the air-conditioners this summer. Seniors can enjoy the heat and summer activities safely by being aware of its effects, and employing strategies to mitigate its serious health consequences.
Visit Bethesda’s blog to stay advised on safe practices for summertime.