Maryjo L. Cleveland, MD
Medical Director, Post Acute & Senior Services
Chief, Division of Geriatric Medicine
Summa Health System
It is the middle of winter here in Cleveland and we have experienced an unusual amount of snow, sleet and ice. In fact, if you live anywhere with winter, I’ll bet this weather has been challenging. One problem that we see more of in the winter is falls. I ask all of my patients if they have experienced a fall. Can you guess the most common answer I get? It isn’t “no”— it’s “not yet.” Isn’t that interesting? That answer means that they expect to fall sometime. In other words, they think it’s normal. But we are here to find out otherwise!
Falls are certainly common. Most people can tell you about friends or family members who have fallen and suffered a serious injury from a fall, such as a broken hip. Most people also tell me that falling is one of the things they fear the most. The good news is that while falls are common, they are not inevitable. There are well defined risk factors that make it more likely for someone to fall. And there are also recommendations on how to prevent falls. These recommendations will require you and your healthcare professional to work closely together.
When the weather starts warming up—as it is in much of the United States right now—the body uses a variety of clever strategies to cool down. Sweat glands work overtime, sending more sweat to the surface of the skin where it evaporates and cools the body. Muscles relax so more heat-carrying blood flows to the skin where that heat can escape into the air. Even tiny body hairs get involved. They flatten themselves so surrounding air can more easily circulate over the skin and allow more heat to escape.
However, as we get older, age-related changes in our bodies lessen our ability to use these important cooling strategies. And this increases our risks of dangerous heat-related health problems such as heat stroke—a potentially life-threatening increase in the body’s internal temperature. Age-related changes also makes it harder for the body to tell when it’s getting dangerously dehydrated—or “dried out”—and needs water right away. In addition to age, medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes can boost older people’s risks of heat-related medical problems. Some medications can also affect how you feel in the heat. Heat-related medical problems can be very serious. An estimated 200 older Americans die of heat-related health complications each year.
And that simply shouldn’t happen. With some simple precautions, older adults can avoid heat- related dangers. There are several tips from the experts in this new, easy-to-understand “tip sheet” for staying safe when it’s just too darn hot. You can find the new tip sheet, Hot Weather Safety Tips for Older Adults, here.
Older adults and their caregivers need to be especially careful when the temperature reaches 90°F and keep an eye out for signs of heat-related problems. The Health in Aging team hope you’ll share these tips with older friends and neighbors as well, and that this important information will make the livin’ easier, even as the mercury rises this summer.
How do you plan to stay cool this summer?