Updated: Jul 30, 2021
Heat stress (hyperthermia) is common for many during the summer due to the scorchin’ heat, humidity, hydration levels, medications, and just the overall health of an individual. However, those age 65 and older are more prone to heat stress than others in the general population. This is because older adults are not able to adjust as easily to sudden temperature changes, they’re more likely to have a chronic health condition that causes their body to react differently to heat, and sometimes the medications older adults take (like sedatives, diuretics, tranquilizers, etc.) can negatively affect their body’s ability to regulate temperature (ie: inhibiting perspiration). While older individuals may enjoy the outdoors, it’s important that caregivers are aware of the dangers for heat-related illnesses, heat stroke, and dehydration- especially caregivers for an individual with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
When a person has dementia or Alzheimer’s, they may not recognize or understand how the intense summer heat can affect them. They may not “feel” the heat, and could dress in layers of clothing- or because of possible deficits in communication, they may not feel comfortable (or know how) to express their discomfort to others. If a person is living alone, they may not remember to drink enough water, forget to turn on the air conditioner- or even accidentally turn on the heating system, making them more vulnerable to heat stress. Signs of heat-related stress can include rapid pulse, fast and shallow breathing, headache, nausea, dizziness, feeling faint, cramps, fatigue and even seizures/convulsions and coma. If a person’s body temperature rises to 100 degrees, it is critical to get them medical attention immediately as they may be suffering from a heat stroke.
Heat stroke can cause a series of responses in our brains and bodies- including neurological effects that can lead to long-term cognitive impairment. When our bodies overheat, there is disruption in the blood-brain-barrier which allows immune cells to enter that brain, causes neuroinflammation. Our body trying to stop the overheating also causes a decrease in blood flow to the brain, which can deprive it from oxygen and nutrients it requires to function properly. These reactions can lead to confusion, seizures, and loss of consciousness- and if our body/brain doesn’t cool down quickly enough, it can permanently affect our attention, memory, and personality. If a person is suffering from heat-related illness, they should be moved to a cool, shady area and have a cool wet cloth applied to their head, groin, or armpits (areas that cool quickly). Their feet should be elevated as well. The person’s body temperature can also be lowered by immersing them in a tub of cool water, sponging off with cool water, or by taking a cool shower. It is important to continually monitor their body temperature and to attain medical assistance as quickly as possible. Murray County Medical Center Ambulance is on-call 24/7 for all emergencies, including heat stroke.
There are many ways to avoid heat-related illness including consuming fluids often and staying hydrated, staying inside during the hottest part of the day: 11:00am-4:00pm, parking close to entrances when running errands to avoid long walks, dressing in light-colored and loose lightweight clothing, checking that the A/C is in working order regularly, and having a cool and shady place to sit when outside.