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Cold weather cautions for older persons.


Winter's chill can be fatal to the uninformed, warns the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)--and older persons are the most vulnerable. When body temperatures drop below normal and the body loses heat faster than it can be replaced, hypothermia results. Because there are no true statistics for hypothermia as a cause of death (cold can bring on death, but it is rarely listed as the main cause), experts estimate that cold stress contributes to an average of 35,000 American deaths each year--of that number, the experts say 80 percent are persons over 65. Older persons exposed to severe cold can become hypothermic very quickly. For some, being in places even slightly below 70 degrees F. may also lead to accidental hypothermia.

As the body ages, its ability to regulate responses to changing temperatures decreases. Such heat-generating and -conserving responses to cold as shivering and narrowing of blood vessels may be delayed, decreased, or absent altogether, even in healthy older persons. Hypothermia is most likely to hit those unable to afford heating costs and those with arthritis, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism, head injuries, or strokes. These and other chronic diseases may interfere with the production and retention of body heat. Also, certain medications, including some tranquilizers and anti-depressants, can leave some people less sensitive to the cold, as can poor nutrition and alcohol abuse.

Because its symptoms are so similar to those of strokes or diabetic comas, people often confuse hypothermia with these ailments. The only way to know for sure is to take a victim's temperature with a thermometer that reads as low as 90 degrees F. Retail drug outlets generally carry $10-15 digital thermometers that measure lower temperatures and can be administered orally, rectally, or under the arm. When the body gers below 95 degrees F., vital organs may be damaged, heart disease and diabetes may worsen, and death may result.

When an older person displays any of the following signs in cold weather--shivering, slurred speech, poor muscle coordination, muscle rigidity, memory lapse, amnesia, trembling on one side of the body or in one arm or leg, slowed breathing, pale or puffy skin with large irregular blue or pink spots, or is cold to the touch--summon medical aid immediately. While waiting for help, place a blanket or extra clothing over the victim and cover the head to reduce heat loss. In cases where there is no external heating source, it is possible to warm the victim through close physical contact, but be gentle--the idea is to minimize shock to the heart. Rubbing the limbs could worsen the condition.

"The incidence of accidental hypothermia can be dramatically reduced if older people know the causes," says AARP president Louise Crooks. To prevent accidental hypothermia, people should keep their homes between 65-70 degrees F. and dress warmly while awake or sleeping. Several layers of loose, warm clothes are better than one heavy layer. Wool is an excellent insulating fabric. Hats and scarves retain half of the overall body heat otherwise lost from the head and neck. Mittens are warmer than gloves. An electric blanket or extra blankets, a hat, and socks will increase bedtime warmth. AARP also advises elderly persons on limited incomes to contact their local energy offices or utility companies for financial assistance.

Persons wanting more information on this subject can order a free publication by sending a postcard to: In Good Health With Energy, D12023, AARP Fulfillment, P.O. Box 2240, Long Beach, CA 90801. Allow six to eight weeks for delivery.
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Publication:Medical Update
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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