Written by Randy Hulshizer
It’s almost that time of year again! For many, the upcoming warm, humid summer months are a time to head to the beach for a cool dip in the ocean, kick back with a glass of lemonade or iced tea in a shady backyard, or simply find a cool, air-conditioned place to relax. Instinctively, people tend to choose activities that alleviate discomfort from the heat, but sometimes the heat and humidity are so bad that the weather service and local governments issue warnings to ensure people understand that heat is not only uncomfortable—it can be dangerous.
Despite the frequent and clear warnings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 681 people die in the U.S. each year due to heat-related factors. The majority of heat-related deaths occur in individuals over the age of 65 and most are preventable.
Photo by Daniel Cima
The reason for the high number of elderly deaths due to heat are three-fold. First, as the human body ages, it becomes less adaptable to sudden changes in temperature or other environmental factors, such as humidity and air pollution. Second, many people over the age of 65 have chronic medical conditions or take multiple prescription medications, both of which could affect the body’s ability to adapt to environmental changes. And third, many people over the age of 65 simply ignore the warnings.
According to a 2007 survey of more than 900 individuals over the age of 65, only about half heed excessive heat warnings. Some individuals stated that, although they knew that “elderly” people were at higher risk of heat-related conditions and death, they did not consider themselves “elderly,” and therefore the warnings did not apply. In addition, most reported that they had access to air-conditioning, but about a third of them said they didn’t turn it on because it cost too much.
The Red Cross encourages everyone, especially the elderly, to pay attention to the warnings and take appropriate action: stay in air-conditioning if possible; drink plenty of water; stay out of the sun; wear lose-fitting, light-colored clothing; don’t engage in strenuous activity; and get plenty of rest. If you know someone over the age of 65, check on them occasionally to be sure they are weathering the heat safely.