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A Good Excuse to Take Mom to the Mall

Whenever I talk to my 82-year-old mom on the phone during warm weather, I ask her how she's holding up. She doesn't much like the heat and humidity, but she does fine: She's got air conditioning and is in great physical shape, and she knows to restrict her outdoor activities when the heat gets extreme.

But many older adults have a hard time in hot weather. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), older bodies lose some of their capacity to deal with heat as circulation weakens and sweat glands become less efficient. Heart, lung, and kidney diseases, high blood pressure, medications (such as diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers, and some heart and blood-pressure drugs) that interfere with perspiration (one of the body's main mechanisms for cooling itself), and being substantially overweight or underweight can all increase a person's risk of developing heat-related illness. So can living in really hot living quarters, overdressing, and going to overcrowded places.

How sick can heat make you?

Pretty darned sick, according to the NIA.

Scary, but not usually life-threatening, heat-related conditions include heat fatigue, cramps, exhaustion, and syncope (sudden dizziness or fainting). All of these require attention: anyone, including older people, suffering these maladies should be taken out of the sun and into a cool place, offered water or juice (but not alcohol or caffeine), and encouraged to shower, bathe, or sponge off with cool water. A cold, wet cloth applied to spots such as the wrists or neck, where arterial blood passes close to the skin, can help cool a body down.

Heat stroke, on the other hand, is life-threatening and requires emergency medical care. Heat stroke happens when the body simply can't keep up with controlling its temperature any more. A person with heat stroke may have a temperature topping 104 degrees; he might be confused, combative, or delirious and is likely to have a strong, rapid pulse, dry, flushed skin, and a notable lack of sweat. Call 911 right away!

But the best thing is to help older people avoid getting overheated in the first place. In beastly hot weather, older people should seek cool places to hang out. Libraries, community centers, movie theaters, and shopping malls are all good options.

Perhaps we should all take a minute to think about the older people we know and whether they might need help staying cool -- and healthy -- for the rest of the summer. Maybe it's time for a trip to the mall or the movies.

Have you or a friend or loved one had experience with heat-related illness, or even heat stroke? Any personal tips for keeping your cool in hot weather?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  August 12, 2008; 12:00 AM ET
Categories:  Seniors  
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