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Summer heat poses special risks for seniors

Dear Savvy Senior,

Can you write a column alerting seniors to the dangers of summertime heat? I manage a number of urgent care clinics. Last summer, we had more than 200 cases of heat-related illnesses, most of whom were seniors. I would like to reduce that this year.

Concerned Citizen

Dear Concerned,

Most people don't realize extreme summer heat causes thousands of heat-related illnesses in the United States each year, and kills more people than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined -- and seniors are among the most vulnerable.

The reasons behind this are because of the body's ability to regulate temperature through blood circulation and sweat glands tends to decline with age. Bodies of older adults also contain far less water than a younger person, and older brains don't recognize thirst as easily, making them more likely to get dehydrated.

In addition, many seniors have certain health problems that can increase their risk of hyperthermia (when the body overheats).

These include:

* Underlying diseases such as congestive heart failure, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD.

* Trouble walking or moving around.

* Being overweight.

* Having dementia or other problems with thinking skills.

* Medications some seniors take, such as diuretics and other high blood pressure drugs, also can cause dehydration or affect the ability of their heart, blood vessels or sweat glands to respond to heat.

Signs of danger

Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. The signs to watch for include a body temperature higher than 103 degrees, a rapid pulse rate, throbbing headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and hot, dry skin with the absence of sweating. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, call 911 immediately because heat stroke is a medical emergency.

Heat exhaustion is milder and can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures. The warning signs are heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, fainting, dizziness, headache, and nausea or vomiting.

What to do

If you think you might be suffering from a heat-related condition, cool yourself down by going indoors into air conditioning, remove or loosen any tight-fitting or heavy clothing, drink plenty of water (but avoid alcohol and caffeine), take a cool bath or shower, or apply cold water, ice packs or cold compresses to your skin.

And when you do go out in the heat, be sure to dress in lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing, avoid extended periods of sun exposure and drink plenty of water even if you don't feel thirsty.

Seniors who live without air conditioning should go to public places that have it such as shopping malls, senior centers or public libraries. Your local health department can also refer you to an air-conditioned shelter in your area.

For those who can't afford to run their air conditioning at home, there's the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, along with many utility companies and charitable organizations that could be able to help you with your utility costs. To find out about the programs available to you, along with their eligibility requirements and how to apply, call the National Energy Assistance Referral project at (866) 674-6327 or visit energynear.org.

For more extreme heat-related safety tips, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at cdc.gov/extremeheat.

Send your senior questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is author of "The Savvy Senior."

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