NIH cautions older adults, caregivers to be vigilant about hypothermia

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo: U.S. Pacific Fleet via Flickr

Photo: U.S. Pacific Fleet via Flickr

Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in body temperature that may result in long term, serious health problems such as a heart attack, kidney or liver damage, or death.

Older adults are especially vulnerable to hypothermia because their body’s response to cold is often diminished by underlying medical conditions such as diabetes. Certain medications, including over-the-counter cold remedies, can also affect the body’s response to temperature.

According to the National Institute on Aging, hypothermia is generally defined as having a core body temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. It can occur when the outside environment gets too cold or the body’s heat production decreases. Hypothermia can develop in older adults even after relatively short exposure to cold weather or a small drop in temperature. Recent CDC data shows that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the 2,000 weather related deaths for all ages between 2006-10 were due to exposure to excessive cold, hypothermia, or both. Between 1999 and 2002, 49 percent of those who died from hypothermia were aged 65 or older, 67 percent were male.

Signs of hypothermia include confusion or sleepiness, slowed and slurred speech, shallow breathing and a weak pulse. A person may also experience poor control over their body movements, slow reactions, shivering, with stiff arms or legs. Some of these symptoms mimic signs of cognitive impairment and may go unnoticed at first, according to this article in Current Psychiatry.

Older adults do not have to be outdoors to suffer from hypothermia, either. Every winter, there are reports of elderly adults who turned down or turned off their heat due to high energy costs and end up freezing to death.

Older adults and their caregivers should check with the physician or pharmacist to see if any medications might increase risk for hypothermia. Home thermostats should be set at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the NIA, even temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees can lead to hypothermia in some older adults. And mom was right – wearing hats, gloves, scarfs, or mittens and dressing in layers can prevent or minimize body heat loss outdoors. Wearing socks, warm slippers, long underwear, and using a blanket indoors can help retain body heat indoors.

When reporting on this issue:

  • Remind older people that local low-income home energy assistance programs can help with costs.
  • Check with local hospitals about emergency department visits and hospital admissions for those presenting with confusion, disorientation, non-stroke related symptoms.
  • Also check with local nursing homes and assisted living facilities to see if they have cold weather plans in place and ask about protocols for checking on individual residents
  • Contact your city or county health department for up-to-date statistics
  • Contact local clinicians, senior centers, or community health organizations and ask about any outreach to increase awareness among seniors and caregivers about this problem.
  • What are your city or town’s rules when there are cold weather emergencies? For example, what are landlords required to do to help older adults if they heat is temporarily shut off for any reason? What about local utilities? Do they offer financial or other assistance?

There is still plenty of winter left – and it doesn’t take much for a frail, medically complex older adult to succumb to cold temperatures. It’s a story that bears repeating every year.

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