Chilly air and blustery winds can be deadly cold, especially for older people who are at higher risk for hypothermia than are young adults.
Hypothermia is a below-normal body temperature, typically 96° Fahrenheit or lower. Surprisingly, hypothermia can threaten the health of older people in cool indoor temperatures such as 60°F to 65°F. As people age, they may lose their natural ability to keep warm in the cold, and inactivity, illness, and certain medications make it even more difficult.
“Usually we think of hypothermia as something that happens to people outdoors,” says Dr. Terrie Wetle, Deputy Director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA). “It is important to know that some older people may have a dangerous drop in body temperature inside their own home.”
According to Dr. Wetle, elderly poor people are at an increased risk for hypothermia because they may keep indoor temperatures low to save on heating costs.
Signs of hypothermia include any unusual change in behavior, confusion, sleepiness, clumsiness, slurred speech and shallow breathing. The sure way to detect hypothermia is by taking a person's temperature. A temperature below 96°F will not register on many oral thermometers. If the temperature reading is at or below 96°F, call 911 immediately.
Hypothermia can be prevented. The NIA recommends that if you are an older person you should:
- Find out if you are at risk. Ask your doctor if the prescription or over-the-counter drugs you take can affect body temperature regulation.
- Dress warmly in layers of clothing even when indoors. Hypothermia can occur in bed, so wear warm clothing to bed and use blankets.
- Ask friends or neighbors to look in once or twice a day if you live alone. See if your local community has a telephone check-in or personal visit service.
- Use alcohol moderately, if at all. And avoid alcohol altogether near bedtime.
- Eat hot foods and drink hot liquids to raise your body temperature and keep warm.
- Set the thermostat in your home at least 68°F - 70°F in living or sleeping areas. Ask your doctor if you should set your thermostat higher.
- Look into fuel-assistance programs and home winterization programs. Your local utility company or area office on aging often has an assistance program.
Source: National Institutes of Health, National Institute of General Medical Sciences Press Release, January 2000.