Heat waves tend to be underestimated as natural disasters because they lack the destructive power of hurricanes or earthquakes. We shouldn’t, however, overlook their lethal capabilities. During a week-long heat wave in Chicago in July 1995, temperatures in that city reached as high as 106 with a heat index of 120. At least 739 people died — 651 of them 85 or older. Most were living alone, without power or air conditioning.
Four years later, when another heat wave hit, the city took aggressive action, sending police to check on isolated seniors and offering free bus service to cooling centers. Still, 110 people died. And during a catastrophic three-week heat wave in Europe in August 2003, when temperatures produced the hottest season in five centuries, an estimated 70,000 people died, a fifth of them in Paris alone. Again, elders living alone were most vulnerable.
As parts of the United States, particularly in the Midwest, struggle with one of the hottest, driest summers on record, the country needs to be aware of the health risks of high temperatures. (In fact, the nation as a whole appears to be experiencing one of the three hottest summers since 1950.)
And while seniors face the greatest danger, they aren’t the only ones at risk. According to Dr. Basil A. Eldadah, program officer with the Division of Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology of the National Institute on Aging, “heat-related injuries can affect all ages, the middle-aged as much as the older population. You may not feel as susceptible as your elderly parents, but even the best of us can succumb to hot weather.”
The Risks Associated With Heat Waves
Heat exposure can lead to several dangerous conditions, grouped under the umbrella term hyperthermia. The opposite of hypothermia, these conditions are characterized by an abnormally high body temperature caused by a failure of the heat-regulating mechanisms of the body to deal with hot weather. Most people who die from hyperthermia conditions are over 50, and those who have poorly working sweat glands — or heart, lung or kidney disease — are especially vulnerable. So are people who take diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers or certain heart and high blood pressure medication, such as beta blockers, which can impair the body’s ability to cool itself by sweating. People who are overweight are also at greater risk than others. Here are some conditions to watch out for:
- Heat syncope is sudden dizziness that may happen when you exert yourself in high temperatures. People with heart conditions who take beta blockers are especially susceptible to feeling faint in the heat. Staying hydrated, sitting with your legs elevated, and spending time in a cool place should bring on recovery.
- Heat cramps in your stomach, arms or legs can result from hard work or exercise in the heat. Cramps are one way your body tells you that it’s too hot. When you cramp up, go where it’s cool or find shade and hydrate.
- Heat edema, the swelling of ankles and feet due to heat, should be relieved by elevating your legs. If the swelling doesn’t pass soon, is warm or red to the touch, or you have a fever, see your doctor immediately.
- Heat exhaustion can arise when your body cannot cool itself, and as a result you feel thirsty, dizzy, weak, uncoordinated and nauseated. Your skin may feel cold and clammy and your pulse rate may go up. Get yourself to a cool spot and drink fluids.
- Heat stroke is a potentially life-threatening emergency condition to which an elderly loved one in your care may be particularly susceptible. (In the Chicago heatwave, all of of those who died were 55 or older.) Heat stroke can occur when the body, overwhelmed by heat, cannot control its temperature, which may rise above 104 degrees. Heat stroke is usually associated with a temperature of 105 degrees. It can be characterized by fainting, confusion, staggering, a rapid or weak pulse, an inability to sweat, flushed skin or even coma. Seek immediate emergency medical attention for a person with any of these symptoms.
If You’re Looking After a Loved One
When you know that a heat wave is coming, it’s critical to make sure that loved ones living alone are being checked on regularly, and that they have the means to keep cool. “Prevention is always better than treatment. When it comes to hyperthermia, you never want to find yourself having to react when you may not have the resources to react appropriately,” Eldadah says. “Pay attention to the elder’s living situation. Make sure that if they have an air conditioner, it’s actually conditioning the air and not just being a fan, and that the compressor is actually working. That’s not always a given.”
When you’re with a loved one during a heat wave, he says, take action to cool off more quickly than you might on your own. “In your car, you may feel perfectly comfortable just rolling down the window,” he says. “But if an older person is with you, have a lower threshold for running the air conditioning.”
How to Keep Yourself Cool
- Drink liquids. You know what you need — eight glasses of water a day. Fruit or vegetable juices can also cool you. “Hydration is essential,” Eldadah says. “We’ve all heard the advice that you need to keep hydrated before you get thirsty, because once you feel thirsty, you’re drinking to catch up.” But you should avoid drinks with alcohol and caffeine. “They have a diuretic effect,” he says.
- Limit the use of your oven and keep your shades low.
- If your home is not air conditioned, spend time in a place that is, especially in the afternoon when temperature are at a peak.
- Dress for the weather. Loose-fitting clothing is best, Eldadah says, because “the more surface area one has to dissipate that heat, the better.” Some people find natural fabrics such as cotton to be more comfortable in the heat,” he says, “but some athletic clothing is made to conduct water vapor … so heat can transfer through those clothes more efficiently.”
- In high heat, “take a common-sense approach” to your exercise routine, Eldadah says, and modify your workout accordingly, especially if it involves running outside.
- Shower or bathe to cool off, or get some faster relief by applying a cold, wet cloth to your wrists, neck or armpits, where blood passes close to the surface of the skin.