Extreme cold affects everyone but for older adults with declining muscle mass, freezing temperatures can increase hypothermia risks and pose a challenge for retaining body heat.
Other perils of winter, including slippery surfaces, can also increase fall risks and subsequent injuries. Here’s what you should keep in mind for yourself or an aging loved one.
When your body temperature drops below 95°F, hypothermia can occur. At this point, your body begins to lose heat at a faster rate, cannot efficiently generate heat and starts overextending its energy reserves. This scenario can affect cognitive skills, as well as your heart, kidney and liver health.
Older adults face hypothermia risks in temperatures as high as 40°F, so you may not know that your body is losing heat at a faster rate than it can produce. Risks increase even further if you’re sweating or wearing damp, wet clothing.
In addition to these concerns, many age-related conditions, including hypothyroidism, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease can affect your body’s ability to maintain a consistent temperature. Those with dementia also have a higher likelihood of wandering outdoors without sufficient clothing for cold weather.
Reducing Hypothermia Risks in Extreme Cold Weather
This time of year, ensure your home has a sufficient heat source and dress in warm layers when you go outdoors. To achieve this:
- Keep your home’s internal temperature between 65°F and 70°F. Use the thermostat rather than a space heater or fireplace, both of which come with fire risks.
- Seal off cracks and areas in your home that could cause the temperature to decrease. You may want to use weatherstripping or caulk to keep windows and doors sealed.
- Dress in layers from head to toe, even at home, and dress warmly when you sleep.
- Eat more this time of year, increase hydration and limit – if not eliminate – alcohol.
- Have a plan for power outages, including a backup generator or knowing where you can go to keep warm.
- Continue to be physically active in your home.
- Discuss any medications with your doctor that may affect how well you stay warm.
- Remind family and friends to check on you this time of year.
- When going outdoors, wear multiple layers of loose clothing to trap body heat, a hat and scarf, shoes with traction and waterproof garments to stay fully dry.
- Limit your time outdoors to lessen exposure risks.
In addition to these tips, know the warning signs of hypothermia:
- Cold feet and hands
- Pale skin
- Slower or slurred speech
- A puffy face
- Seeming sleepy or lethargic
- Acting angry or aggressive
- Slow or jerky movements
- A slow heartbeat
- Shallow breathing
If you or a loved one falls victim to hypothermia, call 911. Until the paramedics arrive, wrap up in a blanket and have a warm drink. Avoid rubbing your limbs, using a heating pad or taking a hot bath.
Other Risks of Extreme Cold Weather
Hypothermia is not the only risk that older adults face in winter conditions. As temperatures drop and snow and ice accumulate, be aware of:
- Fall Risks: Have your walkways and stairs cleared before you head outside and make sure all grounds are properly lit. Also check that your shoes and mobility device provide enough traction to keep you stable.
- Frostbite: For older adults, heart disease or circulation issues increase frostbite risks. It can affect your extremities, passing down to the bone and possibly leading to the loss of a limb. Put on layers to keep warm, no matter if you’re indoors or outside. If your skin feels hard or looks waxy, yellow or gray, get medical attention immediately.
- Shoveling Snow: Unless your doctor approves it, avoid this intensive activity which can place strain on your heart and bones, increasing heart attack and fracture risks.
Work with the team at Avon Health Center to help your older loved ones stay safe during the winter months. To learn more about our services, contact us today.
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