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'Snowbirds' Beware the Climate Changes

Switch to balmier days can be healthy and hazardous for seniors, experts say

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 7 (HealthDay News) --- Seniors who head south each winter to escape the cold often feel better just thinking about the warmer climes.

But there are adjustments to be made to make sure these "snowbirds" stay healthy.

Spending more time outdoors, as well as more time socializing, boosts mood and well being for 65-plus senior travelers, said Barbara Resnick, a board member of the American Geriatric Society and a professor of nursing at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, Baltimore.

A winter spent in warmer locales "certainly can reduce the risk of depression," she said.

Besides boosting mood, a season in the south may also improve overall physical health, Resnick added, since warmer weather tends to improve conditions such as asthma. And of course wintering in Arizona or Florida also cuts seniors' risk of slipping on icy sidewalks -- a major cause of hip fracture and other injuries.

But with the benefits of a move south come some potential risks, Resnick said. Among them:

  • Too much sun exposure. "Skin becomes more sensitive with normal aging," Resnick noted. Some seniors may already have had skin cancers, so they should be especially cautious about their sun exposure.
  • Dehydration from spending more time than usual outdoors in higher temperatures.
  • Heat stroke. This potentially fatal condition occurs when body temperature rises quickly and the body can't cool itself down.
  • A ''vacation" mindset that may lead to seniors engaging in risky behavior such as unsafe sex or excess drinking.

For each potential hazard, however, Resnick offers an easy preventive measure. Wearing sunblock, hats or visors and, if it's not too hot outside, long sleeves and long pants will help.

Some medications, including antibiotics, can make the skin more sensitive to sunlight, Resnick said, so it bears asking the doctor before you head south if any of your medications boost your risk of sunburn.

To ward off dehydration, "drink 6 to 8 eight-ounce glasses of liquid each day," Resnick said. It's OK to count other beverages besides plain water. Acceptable alternatives to water include fruit juices, lemonade or sports drinks, but avoid caffeinated drinks. Being aware of the symptoms of dehydration (dry mouth, lowered output of urine, sluggish behavior) can help, too.

The symptoms of heat stroke include dizziness, headache, increased body temperature and dry skin. Heat stroke is potentially fatal and seniors should seek medical help immediately if the condition is suspected.

As for drinking alcohol and engaging in risky sexual behaviors, moderation and safe-sex practices are key to staying safe and healthy, Resnick said.

More information

There's more on avoiding falls and fractures at the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

And If You Stay in the Snowy North

Seniors who skip the trek to Florida, Arizona or other snowbird destinations, deciding to tough it out in cold climates, can keep themselves safe and comfortable by following a few simple steps, said Dr. Sharon Brangman, a member of the American Geriatrics Society and professor of medicine at SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, N.Y.

  • Stay indoors if it's brutally cold. That's especially good advice if it's windy and cold, which can make you feel colder.
  • Assemble a winter wardrobe. That includes clothes you can layer, such as a sweater that goes over a long-sleeved T-shirt, a hat, gloves or mittens, boots that are flat with nonskid soles, a warm coat and a scarf. "Stay dry and go inside and change if clothes get wet," she said. "Also go inside if you start shivering."
  • Know your body's response to cold may have changed. As metabolism decreases, older adults produce less body heat. So when you go outside in the cold, you can lose body heat quickly. If you have diabetes, there can be circulation changes in the hands and feet, making it more difficult to tolerate cold temperatures.

SOURCES: Sharon Brangman, M.D., member, American Geriatrics Society, and division chief, geriatrics, SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, N.Y.; Barbara Resnick, Ph.D, board member, American Geriatrics Society, professor of nursing, University of Maryland School of Nursing, Baltimore

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