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Seniors in the sun

Why older adults struggle in the heat.

Article Author: Johnny Woodhouse

Article Date:

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As the mercury rises, older people are among those most at risk for illnesses like heat exhaustion and stroke. According to the National Institute on Aging, more than 80% of Americans who die of heat-related causes each year are over the age of 60.

And it’s expected to get worse in years to come.

Factors that may increase an older person’s risk for a heat-related illness include:

  • Poor blood circulation
  • Inefficient sweat glands
  • Use of medications that affect water retention
  • Heart, lung and kidney diseases

Kidneys are key

The relationship between high heat and morbidity in older adults can also be traced to those bean-shaped organs that sit on either side of the spine: the kidneys. They're particularly sensitive to extreme temperatures and are among the first organs to suffer when an elderly person gets dehydrated.

“There are a number of aging changes in the kidneys that predispose older adults to heat illness,” said Raphael Balbino, MD, a geriatrician with Baptist AgeWell Center for Health. “These include a lower amount of blood flowing through the kidneys and a lesser ability to regulate electrolytes, the minerals vital to body chemistry. Older adults are also more susceptible to dehydration than younger people, as appetite and thirst tend to diminish with age.”

How to lower your risk

As a person’s kidney function declines, his or her hydration rate needs to be ramped up.

Drinking plenty of liquids, such as water or fruit juices, can lower your risk of heat-related illness. Other things you can do include:

  • Keep your house as cool as possible. Limit your use of the oven, especially if you live in a home without fans or air conditioning. Keep your shades, blinds or curtains closed during the hottest part of the day and open your windows at night.
  • If your house is hot, spend time at a place with air conditioning. For example, go to the shopping mall, movie theaters, library, senior center or a friend’s house.
  • Ask a friend or relative for help getting somewhere cool. Some religious groups, senior centers and community organizations provide this service. If necessary, take a taxi or call for senior transportation. Avoid standing outside in the heat waiting for a bus.
  • Dress for the weather. Some people find natural fabrics, like cotton, to be cooler than synthetic fibers.
  • Avoid activities outdoors when it’s hot. Limit exercising or gardening to the early-morning hours of the day.
  • Steer clear of crowds. Plan trips during non-rush-hour times to limit body heat that comes from being around other people.

Check your numbers

Dr. Balbino believes older adults should have their kidney function checked at least twice a year. A simple blood or urine test can determine how well the kidneys are performing and how quickly body wastes are being filtered out. To look for abnormalities in kidney size or for obstructions such as stones or tumors, a doctor may order an imaging test like an ultrasound or CT scan.

Another thing to remember: the temperature doesn’t have to reach triple digits, inside or out, to put someone at risk for a heat-related illness.

“When we consider all the physiological factors that can place a strain on the kidneys, it’s no wonder older adults suffer the consequences of severe heat exposure,” Dr. Balbino said.

To get ahead of common aging issues and live a more active and fulfilling life, make an appointment with the specialized team of geriatricians at Baptist AgeWell Center for Health. You can start by asking your doctor to fill out this physician referral form.

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