This year, many Americans have considered a question for the ages. It is a divider of families and communities, and everyone has given it some thought before daring to answer. At water coolers and in grocery stores all over the nation, the dilemma is posed: “Hot enough for you yet?” The summer of 2012 will go down in history as one of the hottest in recent memory; the heat wave has scorched through most of America since March. Several all-time temperature records have been shattered to pieces as the 100-plus degree heat stays high day after day. At least 80 deaths have been caused by the unrelenting sun and high temperatures, and health care experts are issuing warnings about how to avoid suffering from these potentially fatal illnesses.
Humans, as warm-blood mammals, have the ability to regulate their internal body temperature—to a point. If it gets too cold, you will shiver in order to produce movement and heat; in hot weather, your sweat will help cool your skin as it evaporates. But in extreme heat, people can become seriously ill if they can’t cool off, and the body’s internal thermometers can only do so much. High humidity levels inhibit sweat evaporation, which lowers your cooling rate; dehydration will prevent sweat from forming and, in extreme cases, shut down bodily functions.
While everyone needs to look after themselves during a heat wave, there are some people who must take extra care. Seniors are at very high risk for heat illnesses; they do not adjust as well to sudden temperature changes, and are more likely to have a chronic condition which inhibits this function. Seniors are also more likely to be on prescription medications, and many of those impair temperature regulation. Doctors and nurses working within the Medicare system are on especially high alert during hot summers; it is easy for seniors to experience heat exhaustion or heat stroke, and they may not be able to move easily to a shady area.
If you are a senior, it’s vitally important to know how to take care of yourself in the heat. Ask your doctor if any of your medications put you at higher risk for heat illnesses; drink lots of fresh water every day, and take cool showers. Wear lightweight clothing when you are outside; however, it’s best to remain in an air-conditioned environment during the hottest parts of the day or week. Pay attention to your body; if you feel dizzy, faint, or suddenly find yourself in a heavy sweat, seek medical help.
The big risk for seniors in a heat wave is heat stroke. This serious condition occurs when the body’s temperature is higher than 103 F, and cannot cool down. It can cause death or disability if untreated, and it is a medical emergency. The warning signs include headaches, dizziness, exhaustion, nausea, and a weak, racing pulse. Heat exhaustion is a milder form of the same illness.
Summer is a wonderful time, especially if you’re retired. The golf course is bright and open, the beach is warm, and your garden may be calling your name. But the temperature is no joke, and seniors should be extra alert to the risks of heat-related illnesses. With careful vigilance, you can enjoy the summer and keep your health for many years to come.
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