5 ways to protect older adults during a heat wave


Areas across the globe are hitting record high temperatures this week.

Much of the U.K. is under a “Red Extreme heat warning” with temperatures predicted to be more than 15 degrees higher than usual. Texas and the central and northern plains of the U.S. are under excessive heat warnings as well—meaning the heat index is expected to reach at least 105 degrees Fahrenheit for two or more hours. 

Extreme heat kills more people in the U.S. than any other weather-related phenomenon and is especially dangerous for older adults. Roughly 12,000 Americans die each year from heat-related causes—and more than 80% of those are age 60 and older.

Older people are at greater risk of heat-related illness because they are more likely to have chronic conditions—or take medications—that affect how their bodies respond to heat. Even without a health condition, older people don’t adjust well to dramatic changes in temperature.

Older adults and their caregivers should take preventative measures to stay safe during these extreme temperatures.

Hydrate and avoid high-sugar or alcoholic beverages

Older adults are more vulnerable to heat illness from dehydration. In a time of high temperatures, they should drink a minimum of eight glasses of water a day, says Dr. Jenny Jia, an instructor of general internal medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“Our thirst mechanism gets blunted as we approach our eighties so we lose our ‘early warning system’ for dehydration,” said Dr. Ardeshir Hashmi, section chief of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Geriatric Medicine. Aging adults should “drink fluids at regular intervals even if [they’re] not feeling thirsty.” 

And avoid drinks that dehydrate the body, including those with sugar or alcohol. 

Stay indoors in the AC or find cool public spaces 

Staying indoors in the air conditioning is the safest way to avoid heat illness. Close the blinds during the day to keep the home cool and consider keeping the windows open at night for fresh air. If you or your loved one don’t have access to an air-conditioned room, try going into public community cooling centers in your area during the peak heat wave.  

“They can also think about public libraries, malls, and grocery stores,” says Jia. 

Places of worship may also provide a cooler area to keep safe during the day, Hashmi says. 

Wear light, breathable clothing

Dress for the extreme temperature by wearing light, breathable clothes. Avoid tight clothing, which will trap more sweat. Additionally, a hat will help to block some of the sun. 

Stay connected 

Prioritize checking in with older family and friends, making sure they have enough water and access to cool shelter, says Jia. 

“[Identify] people who can help in a case of an emergency or run any urgent errands during a heat wave,” Jia says. “And [find] people who can also provide a full shelter if that individual doesn’t have their own air-conditioned space or their air conditioning breaks.”

Go out early or late 

The heat is the strongest midday. If an older adult must leave the house, it should be earlier in the morning or later in the evening. Try to limit activities that exert a lot of energy.

As temperatures continue to rise, it’s crucial to monitor symptoms and take preventative measures when available.

Watch for signs of heat-related illness

There are several heat-related illnesses, and the symptoms can look similar to each other. Look out for weakness, fatigue, light-headedness, headache, muscle cramps, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, heart palpitations, confusion, and fainting. Older adults may be more prone to muscle cramps, headaches, confusion, and dizziness.

If you notice any of these symptoms in an older adult, monitor the person closely and call a doctor for further treatment, says Jia. You want to act quickly in the case of heat stroke, which is hard to detect and potentially fatal.

“You do not have to be passed out in order to be considered to have heat stroke,” says Jia. “It just means your body temperature is 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher and you have a change in your mental state that can cause confusion, issues with walking or balance.” 


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