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Oh-So-Cold Temperatures Plague Older People

Metabolism and other body changes exacerbate wintertime issues

SUNDAY, Jan. 25 (HealthDay News) -- Hypothermia, frostbite, and falls are among the winter-related dangers faced by older adults, warns the American Geriatrics Society's Foundation for Health in Aging.

They're more susceptible to hypothermia, or dangerously low body temperature, in part because older people have a slower metabolism and produce less body heat than younger people, the society said. In addition, it added, body changes can make it harder for older people to tell when the outside temperature is too low.

To prevent hypothermia, older adults should:

  • Stay indoors when it's very cold and windy outside. Keep indoor temperatures at about 65 degrees F.
  • When going outside, don't stay in the cold or wind for too long. Wear two or three thinner layers of loose-fitting clothing, which provide more warmth than a single layer of thick clothing. Also wear a coat, hat, gloves or mittens, boots and a scarf to cover your nose and mouth and protect your lungs from very cold air.
  • Avoid getting wet, which chills the body quickly.
  • Go indoors if you start shivering, which might be a warning sign of hypothermia.
  • Monitor yourself for warning signs of hypothermia, which include: shivering; cold skin that's pale or ashy; feeling very tired, confused and sleepy; weakness; problems walking; and slowed breathing or heart rate.

Call 911 if you think you or someone else has hypothermia.

Frostbite is also a danger in extreme cold. It usually affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes. People with heart disease and other circulation problems are more likely to get frostbite.

To protect against frostbite, you should:

  • Cover all parts of your body when you go outside.
  • Go indoors if you skin turns red or dark or starts hurting.
  • Know the signs of frostbite, which include: skin that's white, ashy or grayish-yellow; skin that feels hard or waxy; and numbness.

And again, call 911 if you think you or someone else might have frostbite.

Falls are another danger for older adults that become more of an issue during the winter months.

To reduce the risk of falls:

  • Carefully shovel steps and walkways to your home or hire someone to shovel for you.
  • Don't walk on icy or snowy sidewalks. Look for walkways that are dry and have been cleared.
  • Wear boots with non-skid soles.
  • If you use a cane, replace the rubber tip before it's worn smooth. It may be a good idea to use an ice-pick-like attachment that fits on the end of the cane. These are available at medical supply stores.

The Foundation for Health in Aging also urges older adults to be cautious about shoveling snow. Cold weather puts extra strain on the heart, and the strain of shoveling could be too much for the heart, especially if you have heart disease. Shoveling can also be dangerous for people with osteoporosis.

Older adults should ask their doctor if it's safe for them to shovel or do other hard work in cold weather.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more about staying safe in cold weather.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: American Geriatrics Society, news release, January 2009

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