July 18, 2011 -- Even though the elderly are at high risk for heat-related illness, many older Americans don't heed heat-advisory warnings as carefully as they should, because they don't consider themselves old.
With dangerously high heat and humidity baking parts of the U.S., experts who work with the elderly want them to understand that even if they could once exercise or perform physical labor in hot weather, their bodies have changed now.
"As we age, and especially as we get into our 70s or 80s, we don't tolerate heat or perceive the dangers as well as when we were younger," said Dr. Corey Slovis, head of emergency medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
A study done by a professor at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, in 2006 found that 90 percent of participants older than 65 knew about the risks associated with heat and humidity but believed they applied to people older than they were.
"No one wants to admit they're older," said Peter Ross, CEO and co-founder of Senior Helpers, a company that provides in-home assistance to elderly clients. Ross was not involved in the Kent State University research. "They can be stubborn because they don't want to be considered seniors."
Some older people insist they know their limitations. Jack Jennett, an 81-year-old who lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, was out playing nine holes of golf Wednesday when temperatures soared into the mid-90s.
"I wouldn't have been out there if they didn't have water every three holes," he said.
Jennett knows he needs to stay hydrated and be less active than when he was younger but says he grew up working on farms performing a lot of physical labor all year round, so he's used to the heat.
In addition to playing golf, he works around his yard a lot.
"If I get really hot, I come in and have a glass of water," he said. "When I'm back to normal, I just go out and work a little more and make sure I'm hydrated."
Staying hydrated is one of the most important things older people should do in the extreme heat. Dehydration is one of the most common problems.
"The inability to perceive dehydration can lead to dehydration and the inability to sweat, which can lead to heat exhaustion and then can progress to heat stroke," said Slovis.
One of the biggest dangers of heat-related illnesses is the increased risk of falling.
"As they get dehydrated, potentially getting dizzy or fainting, and we don't want them to fall," said Ross.
Older people are also more likely to be on multiple medications, and Slovis said certain medications can make them more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.
Additionally, heat exhaustion and heat stroke can make pre-existing medical conditions, such as heart disease and lung disease, worse.
Health Tips for Seniors
Experts recommend that older people and their caregivers pay special attention to the following hot weather tips:
Stay Where It's Cool
Older people should be somewhere air conditioned. If they can't afford air conditiong, Ross said they should have fans and be in an area that's well-ventilated, as well as drink plenty of water. Shades, blinds and curtains should be closed. For people who want to exercise, they should consider walking somewhere indoors, such as a mall.
Be Indoors During the Hottest Times
The elderly should be inside from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. when it's hottest outside.
Avoiding foods such as meat and dairy can prevent the body from producing too much heat. Additionally, meat, fish, dairy foods and deli products can put the elderly at higher risk for foodborne illnesses if they aren't cooked or stored properly. Instead, eat lighter foods, such as fruit, and eat often enough so the body has energy to burn.
The elderly are more prone to sunburns because their skin is thinner and more prone to the damaging effects of sun exposure.
Caregivers Should Have Copies of Medical Records
Older people should give copies of their medical information, including prescription medications and doctors' phone numbers, to their caregivers in case of an emergency.
Jennett wants to pass on some advice of his own, especially since the National Weather Service just announced that the heat wave hitting the central U.S. is expanding.
"I can control myself, and they need self-control when it comes to doing things in the heat," he said.