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Winter Health Risks for Seniors

When the temperature drops, older adults run a higher risk of health problems and injuries related to the weather. It’s important that they, and those who care for them, take certain precautions at this time of year.

Published: Nov 12, 2015

Winter Health Risks for Seniors

When the temperature drops, older adults run a higher risk of health problems and injuries related to the weather. It’s important that they, and those who care for them, take certain precautions at this time of year. Here are some health hazards to avoid:

Hypothermia means the body has a temperature that has fallen below 95 degrees (35° C) and can't produce enough energy to stay warm enough. The elderly are at special risk because they may have limited ability to communicate, impaired mobility, less subcutaneous fat, and a diminished ability to sense temperature.

Symptoms include shivering, cold skin that is pale or ashy, lack of coordination, mental confusion, slowed reactions, breathing or heart rate, weakness, and sleepiness. Do not rely on shivering alone as a warning sign, since seniors tend to shiver less or not at all as their body temperature drops. Call 911 if you think someone has hypothermia.

Frostbite can cause damage to the skin and progress to the bone. It usually affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. Frostbite can even result in loss of limbs. Seniors with heart disease and other circulation problems are at risk. Prevention includes covering up all parts of the body when going outside. If skin turns red, dark or starts to hurt it’s time to go inside right away.

Symptoms of frostbite include skin that’s white, ashy or grayish-yellow; feels hard or waxy; or is numb. If frostbite occurs, place frostbitten parts of the body in warm (not hot) water, and call for medical help immediately. A person with frostbite may also have hypothermia, so check for those symptoms, too.

Heart attacks and high blood pressure are more common in winter because cold snaps increase blood pressure and strain on the heart. The heart has to work harder to maintain body heat, while falling temperatures may cause an unhealthy rise in high blood pressure ─ especially in seniors. In winter, blood pressure increases are seen in both the systolic (top) and diastolic (bottom) numbers.

Possible explanations of the cold weather effect include activation of the sympathetic nervous system that helps control how the body responds to stress, and release of the hormone catecholamine, which may increase blood pressure by speeding the heart rate and decreasing the responsiveness of blood vessels.

Painful joints occur more often in winter, though it's not clear why this is the case. While many people with arthritis say their joints become more painful and stiff, there is no evidence that weather changes cause joint damage. Mild daily exercise can help, and many seniors rely on indoor swimming sessions during the winter months because swimming is easy on the joints.

Winter depression is common to seniors, and this can make them perceive pain more acutely. Everything feels worse, including medical conditions. Vitamin D can help. Encourage seniors to consume foods fortified with Vitamin D, such as milk, grains, and seafood like tuna and salmon.

Lung spasms can occur in seniors with respiratory conditions, including asthma and COPD. Seniors are particularly sensitive to cold air, which can trigger these spasms. Suggest using face or “ski” masks from an outdoor or sporting goods store to use their own breath to warm the air before it enters the lungs.

Influenza can result in pneumonia in seniors. Flu vaccines, while not always effective in preventing the illness, can reduce the severity of the symptoms and protect against complications. Flu vaccines are strongly recommended for persons 65+ years old and those who suffer from chronic health problems
such as heart disease, respiratory problems, renal disease, diabetes, anemia, or any disease that weakens the body's immune system. Persons allergic to eggs or who have a high fever, however, should avoid or postpone getting a flu shot. Because influenza vaccine is only effective for one year and viruses vary annually, it is necessary to get a flu shot every year. Do so early, since it takes about two weeks to develop full immunity. However, even a shot in January may protect against a late winter outbreak.

Tips for Seniors in Winter

  • Stay Indoors. Cold temperatures, high winds, snow, and rain can all steal body heat. Wind especially, because it removes the layer of heated air from around the body. If seniors feel they must go outside, don’t let them stay out for very long, and they should go indoors if they start to shiver. Indoors, set the heat at about 65 degrees and keep up on furnace maintenance.
  • Stay Dry. Wet clothing chills the body quickly.
  • Wear Layers. Wearing two or three thinner layers of loose-fitting clothing is warmer than a single layer of thick clothing. Seniors should always wear layers, as well as a hat, gloves or mittens, a coat and boots, and a scarf to cover the mouth and nose and protect lungs from cold air.

Winter certainly poses challenges for seniors, but with awareness and planning, they will stay healthy and be ready for spring. Comfort Keepers®’ trained caregivers help provide senior clients with the highest quality of life possible to keep them happy and healthy at home. Our Interactive Caregiving™ engages clients physically, emotionally, mentally and socially ─ and provides a system of care that addresses safety, nutrition, mind, body, and activities of daily living (ADLs) in winter, and all year round.

References:

AgingCare.com. “Little-Known Winter Dangers for Elders”. Web. 2015.

HealthInAging.org. “Winter Safety Tips for Older Adults”. Web. 2011.

National Institutes of Health (NIH). “When the Weather Gets Cold”. News in Health. January 2009. MedicineNet. “Winter Can Pose Hazards for Seniors, Expert Warns”. Web. 2013.

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