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Elderly at Greater Risk for Heat Stroke, Experts Warn

THURSDAY, July 21 (HealthDay News) -- The risk of heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion, increases with age, experts at the U.S. National Institute on Aging warn.

As people get older, the researchers explained, they are less able to adapt to high temperatures, like those engulfing much of the nation now. As a result, the heat might exacerbate any medical conditions they have.

In addition, older folks may develop certain health problems that could increase their risk of hyperthermia (when the body overheats), the NIA researchers pointed out in a news release from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. These include:

  • Underlying diseases such as congestive heart failure, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • Trouble walking or moving around.
  • Dementia or other problems with thinking skills.
  • Overweight or obesity.
  • Dehydration.
  • Age-related changes to the skin, including reduced function in sweat glands.

Medications that older people take may cause dehydration or affect the ability of their heart, blood vessels or sweat glands to respond to the heat, the NIA experts added.

An elderly person's environment can also influence their response to the heat. For instance, not having access to air conditioning or transportation, or overdressing could put them at greater risk for heat-related illnesses involving hyperthermia, including heat fatigue; heat syncope (lightheadedness or fainting in the heat); heat cramps; and heat exhaustion.

When the body's temperature hits 104 degrees Fahrenheit, heat stroke (an advanced form of hyperthermia) sets in, according to background information in the news release. Signs that someone is suffering from heat stroke may include: a strong, rapid pulse; lack of sweating; dry flushed skin; faintness; staggering; and mental status changes, such as confusion, combativeness, disorientation or even coma, the experts noted.

To stay cool and avoid these heat-related illnesses, the NIA researchers cautioned the elderly to pay attention to air pollution alerts. Anyone without fans or air conditioners, they added, should go to public places with air conditioning, such as shopping malls, movie theaters or libraries.

If, however, it is suspected that someone is suffering from a heat-related illness, the NIA advised people to take the following steps:

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Move them into air conditioning or another cool place.
  • Urge them to lie down and rest.
  • Remove or loosen tight-fitting or heavy clothing.
  • Encourage them to drink water or juices if they are able to drink, but avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • Apply cold water or cold compresses to their skin.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides more tips on how to prevent heat-related illness.

-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas

SOURCE: U.S. National Institutes of Health, news release, July 18, 2011

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