With Central Florida temperatures hitting the mid 90s and humidity levels hovering at over 55 percent, doctors say the effects of extreme heat can take an especially hard toll on seniors and older visitors to Central Florida.
Gerontology specialist Dr. Mariana Dangiolo, who practices at UCF Pegasus Health, the College of Medicine physician practice, says she’s already seen cases of overheating among seniors – some leading to serious complications. And summer’s heat is just beginning.
“One of my patients has just spent three days in the hospital from heat exhaustion. She was doing some gardening without a hat or taking in fluids and quickly became dehydrated. A family member found her sitting on the grass dizzy and confused,” said Dr. Dangiolo. Heat stroke occurs when the body is unable to cool itself and body temperatures rise to more than 106 degrees. In children and elders, it can occur very quickly. Left untreated it can cause death or permanent disability.
Staying hydrated is especially challenging for seniors for a variety of reasons. Many people lose their feeling of thirst as they age. Others have a decreated ability to notice changes in their body temperature. In addition, Dangiolo said, many seniors are on medications such as diuretics, for issues like blood pressure and heart disease. Those factors, and other health issues like diabetes, can make it harder for seniors to adapt to high temperatures than younger people.
Seniors visiting Florida on vacation can also be at increased risk because they get caught up in the excitement of theme park activity, forget to stay hydrated, are unaccustomed to Central Florida’s combined heat and humidity. Some may not be fit enough to handle increased physical activity on vacation, she said.
Another risk is seniors living alone, those without air conditioning and those who scrimp on cooling because of concerns of their energy bills.
A Harvard School of Public Health study reported that an increase of just 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature in the summer can increase death rates among seniors who have chronic health issues such as diabetes and heart disease. Hotter weather can be especially dangerous for seniors living alone, those without air conditioning or those who scrimp on cooling because of concerns about their energy bills.
Symptoms of overheating include excessive sweating, fatigue, muscle weakness, nausea, shallow breathing and rapid pulse rates.
Dr. Dangiolo advises seniors to take repeated breaks from the sun if they are doing yard work or just enjoying the outdoors. Drink plenty of fluids but avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea and cola, she said, which can dehydrate the body. Always keep heads covered and shaded while outside.
“If you suspect someone is suffering from heat exhaustion, get them into a shaded or air-conditioned place and cool the person down as quickly as possible,” said Dr. Dangiolo. “Get the person to take a cold bath, give cold drinks and monitor the person’s temperature. Even just using a cold damp wash cloth and a fan will help.”
If the person’s temperature does not drop to 101-102F quickly, call for emergency help. “Sometimes we assume that the only seniors who suffer from the heat are those without care or those who are homeless and on the streets,” Dr. Dangiolo said. “But dehydration and heat exhaustion can happen to well-cared-for seniors doing everyday activities. We all need to keep a close watch on our seniors as Florida’s temperatures start to sizzle.”