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Keeping cool in the summer heat

Climate change has been raising the temperature greatly over the last several summers. You need to protect yourself in hot summer weather—older adults are more susceptible than their younger peers to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. It isn’t just being outside in the sun that makes you vulnerable. Simply sitting in a hot apartment during the summer can cause you to overheat, particularly if you take medications that affect hydration and body temperature.

Older adults are especially vulnerable to temperature extremes because the body’s ability to keep cool is compromised as we age. The body naturally responds to rising temperatures by dilating blood vessels in the skin, which draws heat from inside the body to the skin’s surface; and by perspiring more, which cools us as sweat evaporates. But as we get older, blood vessels don’t dilate as efficiently, and the ability to perspire wanes. Drugs commonly taken by older adults also factor in—for example, the diuretics used to treat high blood pressure cause dehydration.

It’s vital that you take steps to cool down when the mercury rises, to avoid heat fatigue and exhaustion, heat syncope (sudden dizziness), heat cramps, and heat stroke (when body temperature rises above 104 degrees Fahrenheit). If you can, stay indoors in an air-conditioned environment on very hot and humid days, covering windows that are in direct sunlight by keeping curtains or shades drawn. If you don’t have air conditioning or can’t afford to run it constantly, take advantage of cooler locales, such as your local senior center, library, or mall (be sure to wear a facemask and maintain social distancing if these covid-19 precautions are still recommended in your community).

If you do need to go out when it’s hot, dress in light-colored, loose clothing, and avoid extended periods of sun exposure. Get exercise first thing in the morning, or in the evening, when it’s cooler. Drinking plenty of fluids also is vital, but stick to clear drinks (avoid caffeinated beverages and alcohol, as these can dehydrate you).

Signs you may have a heat-related condition include headaches, weakness, dizziness, fainting, and muscle cramps. If you experience these symptoms, cool down by going indoors (preferably to a room with a fan), drinking plenty of water, and applying cool, wet towels to areas where the blood circulates close to the skin surface, such as the wrists, neck, armpits and groin. Be aware that a rapid pulse, severe headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and hot skin with the absence of sweat can indicate that you have heat stroke. This is a medical emergency, so call 911.

These precautions can significantly reduce your risk of illness and ensure that summer is a relaxing time, when you can work on your garden, golf game, and other outdoor pursuits.

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