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Older woman lays on sofa with cold compresses on her head and around her neck

Seniors and Heat-Related Illness

Older adults are more likely to be affected by summer heat. People over 65 don't sweat as much as younger adults, which is one of the body's most important heat-regulation mechanisms. Seniors also store fat differently, which complicates heat-regulation in the body further. Additionally, they are more likely to take medications that make it harder for the body to control its temperature and to sweat.

Potential Causes of Heat-Related Illness

There are a variety of lifestyle and health factors that increase the risk of developing a heat-related illness:

  • Dehydration
  • Chronic illnesses (heart and kidney diseases, blood circulation conditions, etc.)
  • Prescription medications that reduce sweating
  • Salt-restricted diets
  • Overdressing
  • Lack of airflow or access to air-conditioning
  • Living in particularly hot climates


Signs and Symptoms of Heat-Related Illnesses in Elderly Adults

Early warning signs of heat exhaustion, which may precede the more serious heat stroke, include:

  • Excessive sweating.
  • Tiredness and weakness.
  • Dizziness, headache and muscle cramps.
  • Symptoms may progress to nausea, vomiting and fainting.

If a senior is suffering from these symptoms:

  • Have them lie down in a cool place, and if possible, put a fan directly on them.
  • Take steps to lower body temperature.  Air-conditioning, offering cool fluids, and/ or providing access to a cool bath will also help.

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke, though, is more serious, and it can set in within 10-15 minutes. Heat stroke is caused when internal body temperature rises much faster than it's lowered naturally. If the symptoms of heat stroke are present, call 911. Warning signs of heat stroke include:

  • Extremely high body temperature
  • The absence of sweating
  • Rapid pulse or throbbing headache
  • Dizziness, confusion or strange behavior
  • Seizure and coma

How people over 65 years of age can prevent heat illness:

  • Use the buddy system. During heat waves or extremely hot weather, check in on a friend or neighbor and have someone do the same for you.
  • Stay hydrated; don't wait until you're thirsty. Drink plenty of cool water, juice or sports drinks. If your doctor limits the amount of fluids you drink or has you on water pills, ask them how much you should drink during hot weather.
  • Stay in air-conditioned buildings as much as possible. If your home doesn't have air conditioning, contact your local health department or locate an air-conditioned shelter in your area. Electric fans may provide comfort, but when the temperature is in the high 90s, fans will not prevent heat-related illness.
  • Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.
  • Shower or bathe in cool water frequently.
  • Do not engage in very strenuous activities and get plenty of rest.
  • Seek medical care immediately if you have, or someone you know has warning signs and symptoms of heat-related illness like muscle cramps, headaches, nausea or vomiting. 
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