Could you recognise the symptoms of heat exhaustion and stroke? Why climate change is a threat to seniors 1



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It has been estimated that extreme heat contributes to the death of more than 1000 people over 65 each year in Australia. The number of hot days are on the increase putting more lives of seniors at risk – even the fit and healthy. I recently suffered heat exhaustion in which I cramped severely and then passed out. This was much to my wife’s horror resulting in a call to the paramedics and was due to my playing too much tennis on a hot day. I am now well aware of the risk associated with over-doing activity in the heat.

Climate change experts and health officials have previously warned us about the effects of global climate change. It is here now and with more hot days each summer it is apparent that more seniors are going to suffer and die. Certainly hot weather places more stress on the already overworked emergency services and hospitals.

Seniors do not cope as well as a younger person in the heat. We do not adjust as well as young people to sudden changes in temperature. We do not perspire the way we did when we were younger and are less perceptive to notice changes in body temperature. There are chronic medical conditions that change the normal body response to heat and there are prescription medicines that impair the body’s responses to heat or impair the ability to regulate body temperature or contribute to dehydration. We forget to drink or drink less fluids then we need and easily become dehydrated.

Unfortunately, many seniors do not have or cannot afford air conditioning and even if they have it are loathe to use it adequately because of the cost of electricity. However, there are other things that can be done to lessen the impact of the heat:

  1. Drink plenty of liquids – Dehydration is the root of many heat related health problems. Drink plenty of water or juice, even if you’re not thirsty. But remember to avoid alcoholic or caffeinated drinks, as they can actually contribute to dehydration.
  2. Wear appropriate clothes – When it’s hot out, wear light-coloured, lightweight, loose-fitting clothes and a wide-brimmed hat.
  3. Stay indoors during midday hours – During periods of extreme heat, the best time to run errands or be outdoors is before 10am or after 6pm, when the temperature tends to be cooler.
  4. Take it easy – avoid exercise and strenuous activity, particularly outdoors, when it’s very hot out. (I know).
  5. Watch the weather forecast – When there’s a lot of moisture in the air (high humidity), the body’s ability to cool itself through sweating is impaired. Take note of the ‘feels like’ temperature, rather than the actual temperature.
  6. Seek air-conditioned environments – Seniors whose houses aren’t air-conditioned should consider finding an air-conditioned place to spend time during extreme heat. The shopping mall, library or movie theatre are all popular options. Seniors without convenient access to any air-conditioned place might consider a cool bath or shower.
  7. Know the warning signs of heat-related illness – The symptoms associated with heat exhaustion and stroke are:
    Heat exhaustion: Hot and dry skin, paleness, nausea and vomiting, rapid heart rate, muscle cramps, confusion, fainting and loss of consciousness.
    Heat stroke: Very high body temperature, red, hot and dry skin, dry swollen tongue, rapid pulse, shallow rapid breathing, throbbing headache, nausea, confusion or strange behaviour and loss of consciousness.

I think a national advertising campaign is now warranted to alert the nation to the dangers around the effects of heat on the elderly and to recognise the symptoms of heat exhaustion and stroke.

What are your thoughts?

Michael Whitehead

Michael Whitehead attended uni as a mature age student in his 50s, completing multiple postgraduate degrees in health science and psychology. He has a canoe, a pushbike, a bodyboard, a tennis racquet and a fishing rod. He uses them all. Michael is now enjoying retirement after a wide range of careers, most recently as Manager of a Family Support Service.

  1. Yes the heat does take revenge as we age and the medical profession keeps telling us oldies to keep cool but that isn’t easy some people have no means of getting to cool shopping centres and electricity is so expensive we think long and hard before we turn it on – there should be some extra help so older people can afford to use air cons.

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