Hypothermia: Reducing the risks of extreme weather

The arctic blast moving through the Midwest this week presents complications for everyone but poses special risks for the eldery.

The “polar vortex” dropped temperatures from the high 30s to –10F within six hours Sunday. Strong winds added windchill factors as high as –41F from Minneapolis to Cleveland, while pushing single-digit temperatures into the Deep South.

Older adults, even those who are otherwise healthy, have more trouble staving off the effects of cold weather than younger adults do. Certain medical conditions, including diabetes and chronic heart failure, can reduce the body’s ability to combat the cold. Many medications also can affect the body’s heat production, making the body more susceptible to a chilly environment, notes the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

An additional danger: The signs of hypothermia—sluggishness, stiffness, weak pulse, confusion, sleepiness and/or slowed speech—can easily be misread as symptoms of other conditions that commonly afflict older adults.

A person can get hypothermia even while indoors. University Hospitals of Cleveland reported one hypothermia-related death and one hospitalization of seniors who had become hypothermic while inside inadequately heated homes. The NIA notes that hypothermia can affect older people even when indoor temperatures are 60 to 65 degrees, so thermostats should be kept at 68 or above.

Retirement communities and other senior living organizations should have a plan in place to make contact—door-to-door contact, if possible—with seniors living independently or with little supervision to ensure they are handling the cold successfully.

Tips for older adults

  • Keep indoor temperatures above 68 degrees if possible.
  • Layer up. Layers of lighter clothing trap body heat better than one heavy layer.
  • Keep extremities warm when indoors. Cover legs and arms with blankets.
  • If it is necessary to go outdoors, cover all skin and the head to minimize exposure. Breathe through a scarf.
  • Ask the doctor which medications may leave an older person more at risk in the cold.

Source: National Institute on Aging

[Map source: WeatherBug]

Topics: Clinical