Summer Health for Seniors

After what probably seemed like a never-ending and bitter winter, followed by a rainy spring, with the official start of summer just days away, like most of us, you may be suffering a bit of cabin fever.

Sunshine on your face, the cool breeze in your hair and your favorite summertime activities on the brain, before you step outside, we need to first have a serious chat about the dangers that await you.

Sorry to be the thorn in your side, the pin that burst your balloon and the Grinch who stole your, um, summer fun, but if you’ll give me just ten minutes, what I have to say will be worth the wait; it may even save your life.

Do you remember the days when you were a youngin’ and you spent nearly all day and into the evening (no doubt till the street light came on) playing outside? Kickball, handball, playing tag and if you had a river, stream or lake nearby, you got to swim in an inner tube and dive into the water below? I don’t want to know if you swam in your birthday suit or not, thank you! One thing you weren’t concerned about during those “dog days of summer” was overheating. You played endlessly, and when you were tired and felt thirsty, you probably made up for the energy you lost by drinking a gallon of water all at once. When the ice cream truck came through your neighborhood, there you were, front and center with your snow cone chomping down so quickly, admit it, you got brain freeze!

Well, here’s where I will become the thorn in your side. On top of all the other truly fun aspects of growing older, as we age, we are less able to regulate our body’s temperature the way we could as a kid. What this means is that if you spend much of the day outside, whether you are in the direct sun or not, you easily run the risk of overheating and developing hyperthermia. The opposite of hypothermia, which is what happens when the body loses heat faster than it is able to get warm, hyperthermia occurs when the body is unable to cool itself quickly enough. Maybe this has happened to you once or twice and you recognized the symptoms and slowed down or got yourself inside before any permanent damage was done.

Particularly serious for seniors, the symptoms of hyperthermia are numerous and can result in a dangerous situation rather quickly. As with everything, prevention is the key, but if you notice the following signs in yourself or a loved one, it is recommended that you act quickly to avoid a very dangerous situation – even death.

What you may think of as muscle soreness from overexertion following a day gardening or repeatedly extending the golf club too far could actually be heat cramps. Muscles in the arms, legs and the stomach tighten then become painful, while the skin feels hot and a little clammy. Check your ankles. If they’re swollen, you may have heat edema.

If you feel dizzy, disoriented, faint, overly fatigued, nauseated, have an unusually fast pulse, start sweating profusely and/or find yourself slurring your words, these could be signs of heat exhaustion. This is often accompanied by hot and clammy skin.

Sudden dizziness and light-headedness, especially when sitting (we often only notice this when going from sitting to standing) can be a symptom of heat syncope.

If you notice any of those symptoms, you must do any and all of the following immediately:

Speak up! If you fear you are too woozy to walk to a cooler, shaded area and ask for help;tell someone you are with that you don’t feel so great. It is far too easy for a potentially serious situation to become dangerous all too quickly. Don’t move swiftly, and ask for help sitting down. The last thing you need is to fall and be unable to get up on your own. You could pass out and further exacerbate things by getting heat stroke, which can be fatal. Considered a life-threatening form of hyperthermia, heat stroke occurs when the body’s temperature reaches an excess of 104°F/40°C. Obvious signs are confusion and being belligerent, especially if this is outside of your normal behavior. Other signs can include strong and rapid pulse, staggering (similar to being drunk), inability to sweat, and coma.

Carry a Cell Phone with you at all times! If you live alone or if you like spending time outdoors alone, have your mobile phone on your person and easily accessible. If you feel any of the symptoms above, call someone immediately. Just because someone isn’t right by your side doesn’t mean you are alone. If you live alone, call your neighbor, one of your kids, even the store where you get your groceries. If you feel panicked, by all means, call 911.

Don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed! Don’t let pride or fear of embarrassment deter you from asking for help. Trust me when I tell you that the admonishment you will receive for not asking for help will be far more severe than any shame you think you will receive. Nobody likes thinking they are helpless; this is true. But nobody likes feeling as though they could have done something if only you had spoken up sooner.

If you suspect someone is suffering heat stroke, there are many things you can do to save his or her life. Remove him or her from the heat immediately. Have him lie down, preferably under a fan or in the air conditioning. If she is completely non-responsive, call 911 and carry her to a cold shower or give her a cold sponge bath where she is lying down. Be certain to soak the armpits, groin, wrists, ankles, and neck. These are parts of the body where the blood passes closely to the skin’s surface

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Ways to Prevent Hyperthermia and Heat Stroke

Serious and potentially life-threatening as hyperthermia and heat stroke are, they are both easily preventable. Stay out of the hot sun between the hours of 10:00 pm and 2:00 pm when it is strongest. Do your outside chores and gardening in the early hours of the day or later in the afternoon when it’s cooler. By doing so, you will also avoid sunburn.

Take frequent breaks. If you must be outside during the hottest times of the day, every 45 minutes at minimum take a break. Go inside and sit under the fan or if you have one, an air conditioner. This applies to your regularly scheduled walks, gardening, playing golf, or any other outdoor activity.

Drink plenty of water, and increase it on the scorching hot days. If on normal days you drink between 8 and 10 glasses, it’s okay to increase that to 12 glasses. If you prefer room temperature water, you are better off drinking ice water to cool your body down naturally and more quickly.

Decrease your caffeine and alcohol intake. Both caffeine (in the form of green tea, coffee and soda pop) and alcohol count as negatives against water. If you drink a cup of coffee, follow it up with a glass of water. If possible, have just one caffeinated beverage and for the remainder of the day drink water, lemonade, freshly squeezed (no high fructose corn syrup, please) juice or decaffeinated iced tea.

Eat your fruits and veggies! Along with having vitamins and antioxidants, fruits and vegetables contain lots of water and can help cool your body down. All of them naturally low in calories, you can help regulate your body temperature, keep your insulin level throughout the day and increase your water intake without increasing your waistline.

Know when to say no. It’s okay to skip a day of outdoor activities, especially if it’s going to be a scorcher. Allow common sense to prevail. It is only the middle of June and temperatures are already into the 90s in many parts of the country. It will only get hotter and if you can avoid the intense heat, do it. Alternatively, you can ask loved ones to schedule indoor activities in lieu of having fun outdoors.

In the words of the immortal Benjamin Franklin, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Personally, I’d rather risk spoiling your day by asking you to take some serious precautions than worry that you overexerted yourself on a really hot day and suffered the consequences.

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