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Seniors at Added Health Risk in Colder Weather

According to the National Institutes of Health, almost everyone knows about winter dangers such as broken bones from falls on the ice. But cold weather also can cause an important, less obvious danger that affects many older Americans. Older adults are especially vulnerable to hypothermia, which can be deadly if not treated quickly. This drop in body temperature often is caused by staying in a cold place for too long.

Every year, hypothermia kills about 600 Americans, half of whom are 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hypothermia occurs when a person’s body temperature drops below normal and stays low for a prolonged period of time. With advancing age, the body’s ability to endure long periods of exposure to cold is lowered.

Older people also are at risk for hypothermia because their body’s response to cold can be diminished by certain illnesses such as diabetes and some medicines, including over-the-counter cold remedies. In addition, older people may be less active and generate less body heat. As a result, they can develop hypothermia even after exposure to relatively mild cold weather or a small drop in temperature, says Richard Ueberfluss, a Naperville-based physical therapist and owner of AssistingHands-Chicago.

A cold environment forces the body to work harder to maintain its temperature. Cold air, water, and snow all draw heat from the body. OSHA points out that while below-freezing conditions and inadequate protection can bring about cold stress, problems can also occur with much higher temperatures, even in the 50s, when coupled with rain and wind.

Hypothermia occurs when body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced. When the core body temperature drops from the normal 98.6F to around 95F, symptoms generally begin. The person may begin to shiver and stomp the feet in order to generate heat. Older adults may lose coordination, experience slurred speech, and fumble with items in their hands. The skin will likely be pale and cold. As the body temperature falls, symptoms will worsen, and shivering will stop. At a body temperature of below 85F, severe hypothermia will develop, and the person may become unconscious; at 78F, death can occur. Treatment depends on the severity of the hypothermia.

Frostbite occurs when the skin actually freezes and loses water. In severe cases, amputation of the frostbitten area may be required. Frostbite usually affects the extremities. The affected body part will be cold, tingling, stinging, or aching, followed by numbness. The skin turns red in color, then purple, then white, and is cold to the touch. In severe cases, there may be blisters.

This winter, make sure to check on older relatives to make sure they dont fall prey to the inherent dangers of really cold weather, recommends Ueberfluss.




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