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How Cold Weather Affects Older Adults

In many parts of the country, the coldest season of the year has begun. Along with snow, ice, and plunging temperatures, winter brings increased health risks for seniors. By understanding what to look for and expect, you can stay healthy this season.

Increased Risk of Falling

Snow and ice can be a deadly combination during the winter season, creating greater fall risk for seniors. Those who shovel snow or clear icy paths are especially at risk for injury. In the interest of preventing injury, ask for assistance with these tasks, or opt to hire a neighbor’s kids to give you a hand. Make sure the areas around your home are shoveled and salted and consider using a walker to help you maintain balance during your trips outdoors.

Increased Heart and Health Problems

When winter temperatures and winds reduce body heat, blood vessels constrict, making it harder for oxygen to reach the entire body. The American Heart Association reports this as a primary cold-weather factor for increasing the risk of heart attacks. Seniors with cardiovascular issues are especially at risk.

For those with chronic pain, like arthritis, cold weather will increase their symptoms. Individuals with thyroid problems may find it harder to maintain a normal body temperature. Diabetes can prevent blood from flowing normally to provide body warmth. Parkinson’s disease can make it hard to dress in protective winter clothing. Those who suffer from memory loss or cognitive impairment may go outside without the right clothing.

Speak with your doctor about your health problems and any medications that can increase your risk of hypothermia.

The Big Chill

Older adults lose body heat at an accelerated rate. The aging process causes changes that reduce the body’s ability to create body heat. This makes it harder to be aware of being cold. For seniors with even moderate exposure to cold temperatures, this could result in a dangerous condition called hypothermia. Hypothermia is what happens when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This dangerous condition can cause serious health problems such as heart attacks, liver damage, and kidney problems.

Signs of hypothermia include:

  • Cold hands and feet;

  • Puffy or swollen face;

  • Pale skin;

  • Sleepiness, slowed reactions and movements;

  • Confusion, disorientation, or anger;

  • Slow or slurred speech;

  • Trouble walking, clumsiness and

  • Slow heartbeat.

Dressing in layers of winter clothing to trap heat and provide insulation will help to protect against hypothermia. Put on a hat and scarf; a lot of body heat is lost when your head and neck are left uncovered. If your clothes get damp or wet, change them immediately. Limit the amount of time you are outside on cold, windy days.

Living in a cold house or apartment can cause hypothermia. To keep warm inside, set your thermostat to at least 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Close the vents and doors of the rooms you are not using to save on heating costs. Place a rolled towel in front of your doors to keep out drafts. The use of Weather stripping or caulk will fill any gaps in your windows and keep the cold air out.

Dress warmly, even if you stay at home on cold days. Wear socks and slippers and have extra blankets on hand to ward off the chill. Be mindful of your diet, since healthy eating is important to maintain your body heat. If you do not eat enough, you will lose the fat under your skin that helps you stay warm. Limit or avoid alcohol consumption; alcohol makes you lose body heat and reduces your awareness that you may be cold. For those who live alone, ask family or friends to check on you during cold weather. If there is a power outage in your area, try to stay with family or a friend. If this is not possible, call 9-1-1 for transportation to an emergency warming center.

If you are a caregiver and believe that someone has the warning signs of hypothermia, call 911. After making the call:

  • Try to move the person to a warmer place.

  • Wrap the person in a warm blanket, towels, or coats—whatever is handy.

  • Give the person something warm to drink; avoid drinks with alcohol or caffeine, such as coffee or tea.

  • Do not rub the person's legs or arms.

  • Do not try to warm the person in a bath.

  • Do not use a heating pad.

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