Hypothermia and older adults
Information provided by the National Institute on Aging and Douglas County
With winter’s return, the colder temperatures in Colorado bring some particular risks for older adults and people with chronic conditions. Older adults can lose body heat faster than when they were younger, and changes in their bodies can make it more difficult to be aware of a drop in body temperature. The result can be a dangerous condition called hypothermia.
Hypothermia occurs when a person’s core body temperature drops to 95 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Even a small drop in temperature and short exposure to cold weather can develop into hypothermia. Some warning signs of hypothermia include slowed or slurred speech; sleepiness or confusion; shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs; poor control over body movements; slow reactions, or a weak pulse.
Older adults are especially vulnerable to hypothermia because their bodies’ response to cold can be diminished by chronic medical conditions and by use of some medicines, including over-the-counter cold remedies. If you suspect hypothermia, or if you observe these symptoms, call 911.
Illness, medicines and cold weather
Some illnesses may make it harder for your body to stay warm.
Thyroid problems can make it hard to maintain a normal body temperature.
Diabetes can keep blood from flowing normally to provide warmth.
Parkinson’s disease and arthritis can make it hard to put on more clothes, use a blanket, or get out of the cold.
Memory loss can cause a person to go outside without the right clothing.
Check with your doctor or pharmacist to see if any prescription or over-the-counter medications you are taking may increase your risk for hypothermia.
Hypothermia prevention strategies
The National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, has some advice to help older adults prevent hypothermia:
Make sure your home is warm enough. Set the thermostat to at least 68 to 70 degrees. Even mildly cool homes with temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees can lead to hypothermia in older adults. To save on heating bills, close off rooms you are not using. Close the vents and shut the doors in these rooms, and keep the basement door closed. Place a rolled towel in front of all doors to keep out drafts. Douglas County residents who need help with winter heating costs may apply for energy assistance through the State of Colorado’s Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP). The program is seasonal and help is available now through April 30. While the program will not pay for all winter heating expenses, if you are eligible, the program will pay a minimum of $300. For information, visit www.douglas.co.us and search for LEAP.
To stay warm at home, wear long underwear under your clothes, along with socks and slippers. Use a blanket or afghan to keep your legs and shoulders warm, and wear a hat or cap indoors. You may be tempted to warm your room with a space heater. But, some space heaters are fire hazards, and others can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has information on the use of space heaters.
When going outside in the cold, it is important to wear a hat, along with a scarf, because a large portion of body heat can be lost through the head. Gloves or mittens can help prevent loss of body heat through your hands. Wear several layers of loose clothing to help trap warm air between the layers.
Drink alcohol moderately, if at all. Alcoholic drinks can make you lose body heat.
Make sure you eat enough food to keep up your weight. If you don’t eat well, you might have less fat under your skin. Body fat helps you to stay warm.
Let someone know when you are going outdoors and carry a fully-charged cellphone.
For additional information and resources about hypothermia and older adults, visit the National Institute on Aging at www.nia.nih.gov/.