Michele's Blog

Weather's Effect on Seniors

By Michele Scott

Will Rogers said, “If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma wait a minute and it’ll change.” While warm days in winter months are great for outdoor activities, they can be dangerous for the elderly. As temperatures rise or fall throughout the day, people 65 and over can experience a chilling cold, or overexposure to heat. Their bodies don’t adjust as easily as young people to sudden changes in temperature. An aging brain is slow in activating sweat glands and dilating blood vessels to cool down.  Chronic medical conditions and prescription drugs can alter bodily responses and perspiration. Heavy blankets and excessive clothing in an overheated room can lead to dehydration and heat related illnesses. Extreme drops in temperature can affect the cardiovascular system.  Blood vessels become restricted, arthritis pain and swelling increases and migraines have been reported. Changes in the elderly’s physiological functions affect their ability to easily change or maintain body temperature. Very cold or very hot temperature variations can lead to muscle cramps, exhaustion, brain damage, fainting, stroke and cardiac arrest; lowering life expectancy in seniors and the chronically ill.

Dressing children in layers has become the norm, yet applying this to seniors is often overlooked. Automatic thermostats are great however many fail to automatically go from heat settings to air-conditioning. There are ways care-givers sensitive to Oklahoma’s changing weather can protect those they care for. Rather than a heavy comforter, provide a thin easily removed blankets. Provide sweaters, shawls and throws for cold temperatures and easily removable layers of clothing for the unexpected warm-up. How serious are sudden temperature changes? “Mortality for patients suffering from myocardial infarctions, for example, increased by 5 percent for a 1-degree-Celsius increase in temperature variability.” (E&E News)

Knowing how medications affect the body’s thermoregulatory system is crucial in care taking. When room temperatures cause internal temperature changes, the hypothalamus responds. It sends signals to various organs and systems in the body. If someone is hot, sweat glands release sweat and blood flow to the skin is increased. If someone gets cold, the metabolism increases, blood flow decreases and the body produces heat.  Thermoregulation allows the body to maintain its internal temperature – a process more difficult for the elderly and the chronically ill.

Sudden changes in Oklahoma weather midday or early afternoon has been linked to an increase in emergency room visits by the elderly. Cleveland Clinic reported a direct correlation between consistency in outdoor temperature and patient recovery. Patients recovered faster when temperatures remained fairly constant for 24 hours or more.

Today it is in the 70s and tomorrow it will be in the 20s. Six days later it will be high 60s and days later in the teens. Share this information with the person receiving the care and with family and visiting home-care providers. Something as simple as a shawl, a pair of socks or an easily removed blanket can contribute to providing comfort and possibly save the life of a loved one. To learn more about thermoregulation and applying it to caregiving call me.