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Beat the heat before it beats you

Created date

June 21st, 2011

If there were warning signs on seasons, summer s would say, DANGER: May be extremely hot! From 1979 through 2002, more people in the U. S. died from extreme heat exposure than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. Many were older adults.

Why the danger?

Older adults are prone to heat stress for several reasons. Your body s ability to regulate internal temperature gets less efficient as the years go by, says Nasiya Ahmed, M.D., assistant professor in the division of geriatric and palliative medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. For many people, this may occur as a natural result of the aging process. In particular, the hypothalamus gland (the temperature regulating center of your brain) undergoes aging changes that affect your body s ability to respond to heat, says Shaveta Kotwal, M.D., a physician at Ashby Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Ashburn, Va. Your ability to sense thirst decreases, so you may not feel the need to drink. You tend to sweat less, and sweating is a vital mechanism for cooling your body, Kotwal adds. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some medical conditions such as heart, respiratory, or kidney disease can also interfere with the body s heat response. In addition, older adults are more likely to be taking prescription medications that inhibit perspiration, impair their body s ability to regulate temperature, or cause dehydration. Diuretics are the main culprits that can make older adults susceptible to dehydration, Ahmed says. A lesser-known group of medications, the major tranquilizers likehaloperidol(Haldol) andrisperidone(Risperdal) can disrupt the messages about elevated temperatures traveling between the body and the brain. These medications are sometimes used to relieve symptoms of severe agitation, anxiety, or sleeplessness in people with Alzheimer s disease or dementia.

Heat-related illness

Because your body needs time to adapt to the warm weather, you are at a heightened risk of heat-related health effects at the beginning of the season. Symptoms of heat exhaustion, such as weakness, dizziness, fainting, or vomiting, tend to develop gradually. Heat exhaustion is the body s response to an excessive loss of the water and salt contained in sweat and, if treated quickly, can be easily reversed. If not, it could progress to heat stroke. Heat stroke is a medical emergency and occurs when your body can no longer cool itself. A high fever; hot, dry and red skin; confusion; hallucinations; and aggression may be signs of heat stroke. The potential for heat stroke is greater when high humidity is combined with hot temperatures. When humidity is low, your sweat evaporates and that process helps your body keep cool. But if the humidity is high, sweat stays on your skin and your temperature can rise dangerously, Ahmed says.

Protecting yourself

To avoid heat-related illnesses, you must prevent dehydration. Don t wait until you feel thirsty. By the time you notice thirst, you ve already waited too long to rehydrate. The warning signs of dehydration my patients most often report are dizziness, weakness, headaches, fatigue, and sometimes disorientation or mental confusion, Ahmed says. For people with medical conditions such as heart disease, drinking enough fluid is especially important to prevent dehydration, Kotwal adds. Carry water with you at all times. If you are on a fluid restriction, ask your doctor exactly how much you should be drinking in the summertime. Many of the things you would do to treat heat-related illness are the same things that can prevent it in the first place. The most important thing to do in the heat is to remain in a cool environment, Kotwal says. Drink plenty of fluids. Avoid heavy, high-protein meals, because your internal temperature may rise as your body digests a large meal. Eat lighter meals frequently throughout the day. Go out in the early morning or evening. Wear cool, light-colored, and loose clothing. Don t forget a hat and sunglasses. These measures will also protect your skin from the sun s rays, Ahmed says.