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Senior Health

Summer Heat Safety

The natural ability of the human body to regulate itself and maintain a stable body temperature or thermoregulation changes with age. As a result, older adults are vulnerable to injury when exposed to extreme hot or cold conditions.

During the summer months, excessive heat is dangerous and poses safety and health risks to older people due to the body's compromised ability to adjust to the climate. According to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), excessive heat is defined as periods when "temperatures reach 10 degrees Fahrenheit or more above the average high temperature for a region."1

More people die annually from excess heat than from the combination of tornadoes, hurricanes, lightening, floods and earthquakes. In fact, the recent heat waves have taken the lives of about 36,000 people in the U.S. and Europe, most of whom were 65 years or older.2

Risk Factors

Did you know that as a result of body weight, inactivity, reduced muscle mass and changes to the skin, many older adults are more sensitive to air temperature and are less insulated from the cold and less resilient to the heat?

Age-related risk factors include:3,4

Age-related thermoregulation risks:

Suggested Screening

Health care professionals are aware of heat related illness (e.g., heat exhaustion, heat cramps) and know that death may occur from heat stroke when the body's cooling mechanism fails. In addition to considering the risk factors cited earlier, professionals are encouraged to pose several questions to older adults and family members in an attempt to assess the risk for heat injury.

Precautionary Measures

To reduce the chance of heat related injury, older adults exposed to excessive heat or living in a warm climate should be encouraged to take precautionary measures including:

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References

  1. "It's Too Darn Hot": Planning for Excessive Heat Events, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  2. Extreme Heat: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety, Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 
  3. Miller, C. (2009). Nursing for Wellness in Older Adults, 5th Ed. New York: Lippincott, Williams, Wilkins
  4. EPA.
  5. Miller.
  6. Ibid.

GERO GEMS are a monthly publication of the Center for Aging with Dignity. Compiled by Evelyn Fitzwater, Gero Gems is designed to raise awareness of aging and related issues impacting health care professionals and our society as a whole.

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Last Reviewed: Jul 02, 2008

Evelyn L Fitzwater, DSN, RN Evelyn L Fitzwater, DSN, RN
Associate Professor Emerita
Associate Director of the
College of Nursing
University of Cincinnati