As the nation wilts during an especially brutal summer, warnings have gone out to the elderly to try to stay cool. The problem is, many seniors hear the message but don’t think it applies to them — because they don’t see themselves as old.
That point was underscored in summers past by a Kent State University study of the over-65 crowd in four North American cities. It found that 90 percent of those polled knew about heat warnings for the elderly, but only 15 percent took them personally.
And it's just as true this year for Jack Chapman.
“I don’t consider myself elderly,” says the 73-year-old from Winston-Salem, N.C. “I’m very health-conscious. I stay active walking and swimming. I try to maintain a good diet and I take supplements.”
As for the heat warnings, Chapman says, “I don’t pay a lot of attention to them. I use common sense, but if I want to do something outside, I do it.”
Deciding who counts as elderly is a tricky business. The United States Older Americans Act, for instance, targets people aged 60 and older, but it's a rare 60-year-old who considers himself or herself elderly.
Younger adults, too, call 60 the start of old age, but baby boomers are pushing that number back, according to the Associated Press-LifeGoesStrong.com poll. The median age they cite is 70. And a quarter of boomers insist you're not old until you're 80.
But no matter how you define elderly, or how healthy a senior is, high temperatures can be deadly, experts say. That’s because our bodies lose the ability to deal with heat as we age.
From the time we’re born until age 25 to 30, all our organ systems are growing and developing, explains, Dr. Neil Resnick, a professor and chief of geriatric medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Then at age 30 every body part starts to decline at a rate of about 1 percent per year.
“The good news is that when we’re developing we end up with four to six times more capacity in every organ than we need,” Resnick says. “So if we lose half of that capacity, we’ve still got two to three times more than we need.”
Unless it’s really hot.
Aging requires adaptations
In extreme heat, blood is redirected to the skin to help cool us down. To make up for that, the body needs to make more blood so that the heart, brain and other organs will get enough. But that takes a lot of water, which may be in short supply when a person has been sweating a lot.
Older people may not even realize that they need more water because the sense of thirst diminishes with age so people don’t always know they're dehydrating. Making matters worse, older kidneys aren’t as good at keeping fluids in the system.
Add to that the host of medications taken by seniors — some of which can impair sweating and the heart’s ability to pump harder in response to these heat-related demands — and it's a recipe for disaster on days when the mercury skyrockets.
“The bottom line,” Resnick says, “ is that older people have less of a physical reserve to count on when they’re challenged by high temperatures."
Older folks who think they’re as tough as they were in younger days should think again.
If you’re exercising hard on a hot day, you might dehydrate so much that you end up with too little blood flow to essential organs — like the brain and heart. Worst case scenario, Resnick says, is “you could go into a coma if your brain isn’t getting enough blood supply or you could have a heart attack or kidney failure if those organs don’t get enough blood.”
The consequences can be dire even if you’re not working out hard, says Peter Ross, chief executive and co-founder of Senior Helpers, a company that provides in-home care for seniors.
That's the group that called new attention to a 2006 Kent State University study of more than 900 people aged 65 and older in six Northern American cities: Dayton, Ohio; Phoenix, Ariz.; Philadelphia, Penn., and Toronto, Canada.
Seniors who dehydrate enough to get dizzy run the risk of falling and breaking bones, Ross explains.
Ross’s company has designed a program, called Heat Helpers, to educate the elderly. Seniors are advised to limit strenuous activities on hot days to stay cool and to pay extra attention to getting enough to drink.
“You have to understand that as you age, your body is changing,” Ross says. “And you have to listen to your body.”