A blast of heat moving into the mid-west today, May 29, will reach the East Coast Thursday, pushing temperatures up to near-record levels. Areas from the Great Lakes region to the Eastern Seaboard will see temperatures nearing 100 degrees on the final days of May. In a May 28 press release, geriatrician Thomas Cavalieri, founding director of the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging, warns that the elderly are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illnesses and advises those living in the affected areas to check on elderly neighbors and relatives.
“An older individual’s body will be slower to adjust to temperature changes, which makes them particularly vulnerable when the season’s first heat wave strikes. This is especially true in a situation like we are seeing this week with the rapid transition from cooler weather to extreme, and prolonged, high temperatures.” – Dr. Thomas Cavalieri
Elderly individuals may be unaware of the risks associated with the heat wave and neglect to use air conditioners or fans out of concern for energy costs. Those with reduced mobility may be unable to seek shelter in an air-conditioned building. Many who lack air conditioning in their homes are hesitant to open widows out of safety concerns and succumb to stifling heat in their closed rooms.
Dehydration is always a concern. According to Cavalieri, many older individuals have a diminished thirst reflex, and fail to stay hydrated. This problem is compounded by medications that cause frequent urination, further draining the body of fluids. “More than 40 percent of heat-related deaths occur in people aged 65 or older,” says Cavalieri, and he asks that people check on elderly relatives and neighbors at least twice a day during a heat wave, ensure they are not overdressed, and encourage them to drink plenty of non-caffeinated beverages. Look for signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion include dizziness, heavy perspiration, weakness and nausea. Anyone suffering these symptoms should drink cool water every 15 minutes and apply cloths dampened with cool water directly to the skin. Fainting, staggering or acting confused are signs of heat stroke, a life-threatening condition, and requires immediate medical attention. Do not hesitate to call 911 should someone in your care exhibit signs of heat stroke. Delay in treatment can be fatal.
Heat-related illnesses are not restricted to the elderly. The Red Cross offers these tips for all ages to stay healthy during a heat wave:
- Avoid strenuous activity
- Dress in light clothing
- Eat light meals – note that proteins raise body temperature
- Drink plenty of fluids
- Avoid alcoholic beverages
- Do not take salt tablets unless recommended by a physician
- Stay in air-conditioned buildings
- Stay out of the sun