The elderly are far more sensitive to changes in temperature – both high and low. This is primarily due to the inability of the body to regulate body temperature relative to outdoor temperature as we age. In hot weather, the aged body is much slower to perspire and cool the body down. In cold weather, an older body loses heat faster and struggles to stay warm.
The elderly are at risk of dehydration, heat stroke and simply being uncomfortable the higher the temperature rises. Colder temperatures can lead to a drop in core body temperature resulting in reduced bodily functions and in extreme cases, hypothermia.
What temperatures are dangerous for the elderly, what are the signs and symptoms and how can the risks be avoided?
What High Temperatures Are Dangerous For The Elderly Outdoors?
In general, outdoor temperatures exceeding 105˚ Fahrenheit (40˚ Celsius) are considered to be of risk for adults and temperatures exceeding 130˚ F (54˚ C) are high risk for developing heatstroke or heat exhaustion. For the elderly, temperatures exceeding 90˚ F (32˚ C) are high risk for dehydration and developing heat stroke or heat exhaustion. Keep in mind that these temperatures are high risk for heat exhaustion and temperatures lower than this can start taking their toll on the elderly.
However, it is important to factor humidity into the equation. Humidity is moisture in the air that raises the actual outdoor temperature. Zero humidity will result in a slight drop in temperature so that outdoor temperatures feel cooler. The higher the humidity, the greater the increase in temperature.
What High Temperatures Are Dangerous For The Elderly Indoors?
Comfortable room temperature is generally considered to be 77˚ F (25˚ C). For the elderly, a slightly lower temperature of 74˚ F (23˚ C) is recommended during summer. However, if the specific individual/s find this temperature to be too low, the thermostat on an air conditioning or ducted system should be set slightly higher.
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However, it is not recommended to set the temperature higher than this. Higher temperatures are ideal for bacteria and other microorganisms to proliferate which could be a hazard for seniors who are often more prone to contracting illnesses and diseases.
What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Dehydration, Heatstroke Or Heat Exhaustion?
Exposure to high temperatures, especially for an extended period of time can result in dehydration. Dehydration is the loss of fluid that occurs through perspiration, respiration and urination. This loss of fluid can result in a variety of mild to severe health issues.
An electrolyte imbalance is the most common side-effect of dehydration and basically means the loss of essential minerals and trace elements primarily from sweating. Severe dehydration can lead to organs shutting down and kidney failure.
Seniors and their caregivers should be aware of the following signs and symptoms of dehydration:
- Dry mouth, skin (especially the lips) and eyes.
- Mild to extreme thirst.
- Feeling light-headed, dizzy or faint, especially when standing up after sitting or lying down.
- Tiredness or feeling lethargic and lack of energy.
- Reduced urination (peeing less often).
- Urine that is darker in color and has a strong odor.
- Muscle cramps and weakness.
How To Treat Dehydration
Prevention is always better than cure and drinking plenty of water is recommended. Although other liquids can replace fluids in the body, they should not be substituted for water. It is recommended for adults to drink at least 8 glasses of water a day and more on hot days or when active to avoid dehydration.
Activity, especially intense activity, should be avoided on hot days. Avoid temperatures exceeding 90˚ F (32˚ C) and move indoors if any of the signs and symptoms start appearing. For severe dehydration, it is recommended to seek medical treatment as soon as possible.
Heatstroke Or Heat Exhaustion (Hyperthermia)
Heatstroke or heat exhaustion happens when the body overheats. It occurs due to exposure to high temperatures for extended periods of time or being active on hot days. It can also occur as a result of direct exposure to the sun referred to as sunstroke. The elderly are extremely susceptible to heatstroke as their bodies do not cool as effectively.
It is imperative to seek medical assistance and treatment for heatstroke as soon as possible especially for seniors. Untreated, heatstroke can result in heart attack, stroke, kidney damage, damage to the brain, muscle damage and more.
Be aware of the following signs and symptoms of heatstroke:
- Red or flushed sin particularly on the face, neck or upper chest area.
- Increased body temperature. An internal measurement exceeding 104˚ F (40˚ C) is a clear sign of heatstroke that is serious.
- Skin that feels dry and hot to the touch due to a lack of perspiration.
- Rapid breathing and racing heart.
- Altered state of mind resulting in confusion, slurred speech, irritability, agitation, delirium and/or aggression.
- Nausea and/or vomiting.
- Seizures or coma.
How To Treat Heatstroke
Heatstroke is extremely serious and can be even more severe for the elderly. It is critical to seek medical attention immediately if any of the signs and symptoms of heatstroke are noticeable. Until help arrives or the individual gets to the emergency room, it is important to keep them cool and provide water to drink to replace lost fluids. Even mild heatstroke can be dangerous and needs to be treated medically as soon as possible.
What Cold Temperatures Are Dangerous For The Elderly?
Cold temperatures are not just uncomfortable for seniors but can quickly result in a serious condition called hypothermia before they are even aware of it. Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat and is unable to produce sufficient heat to replace the warmth that has been lost.
Generally, a body temperature of below 95˚F (35˚ C) results in hypothermia. This can happen in cold weather outdoors or due to temperature settings being too low indoors. In fact, hypothermia can occur in the middle of summer for those who spend extended periods of time indoors with the air conditioning set too low.
An indoor temperature of around 77˚ F (25˚ C) is considered ideal but not below 69˚ F (21˚ C). For the elderly, a more comfortable room temperature between those two may be more suitable to avoid a drop in body temperature. Air conditioner temperature may need to be increased at night especially while sleeping. Body temperature drops naturally while sleeping meaning that exposure to colder temperatures is more likely to lead to hypothermia.
I have a separate guide to the best sleep temperatures for seniors if you’d like to learn more about that specifically.
What Are The Signs And Symptoms of Hypothermia?
Hypothermia can lead to serious health problems including coma, heart attack, kidney failure, liver damage and if not treated may be fatal. The risk is higher for the elderly who have greater difficult with regulating their own heat. They have greater difficulty generating heat to warm themselves once their core temperature begins to drop.
It can be difficult to detect the early warning signs and symptoms of hypothermia. It is therefore critical to be aware of the following early signs and symptoms and look out for when they do occur:
- Cold extremities (hands and feet).
- Pallid skin and puffy or swollen face.
- Slowed speech or slurring.
- Acting sleepy or intoxicated.
- Shivering and/or goose-bumps.
- Feeling confused and agitated.
Later signs of hypothermia may include:
- Clumsiness and moving or walking slowly with stiff, jerky movements.
- Slow and shallow breathing and/or slow heartbeat.
- Loss of consciousness.
How To Treat Hypothermia?
If you notice the early signs of hypothermia, it is important to warm the person up as quickly as possible. Drinking warm liquids and using heating pads, electric blankets or water bottles can help. However, with an elderly person, if they do not start recovering within a few minutes, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
If the later signs of hypothermia present, it is critical to seek medical attention for an elderly person immediately. Take steps to warm the senior up while waiting for emergency services or getting to the emergency room.
As we age, our bodies lose the ability to quickly adjust to temperature changes as easily as they did when we were young. To avoid problems, most seniors will be better off when they stay in temperatures between 77˚ F (25˚ C) and 69˚ F (21˚ C). Temperatures above that can lead to dehydration or heat stroke. Colder than that and hypothermia could result.
If you are with a senior that seems to be too cold or too hot, get them to a neutral temperature area immediately and call for help.