Summer senior's health: How older adults can stay safe amid hot weather, according to a geriatrician

Toronto-based doctor Dr. Christina Reppas-Rindlisbacher shares some tips seniors should know for the summer months.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

A portrait of a senior woman drinking while outside in the summer. (Photo via Getty Images)
Summer is a time of year to enjoy yourself, but it's also a good time for seniors to learn about staying safe amid warmer weather. (Photo via Getty Images)

Sunshine, picnics and lazy days spent poolside — summer may be all about fun and relaxation, but for seniors, it can also bring hidden health risks. Ensuring you're staying hydrated and cool to avoid heat exhaustion and heat stroke is something all ages should consider during warmer months. But for older adults, it's even more important to stay cautious and safe.

With the help of Dr. Christina Reppas-Rindlisbacher, a geriatrician at Toronto's Sinai Health and the University Health Network, here's how seniors can keep cool and healthy all summer long.

As we age, our bodies become less efficient at regulating temperature. As a geriatrician and general internist working at a busy downtown hospital, Reppas-Rindlisbacher says she sees an increase in heat-related illnesses in older adults during summer.

She also tells Yahoo Canada the risk of falls in seniors rises in the summer months due to dehydration or heat exhaustion. Here are some helpful tips to keep cool and hydrated:

  • Stay cool indoors: Make sure your air conditioning is in good working order, and get it serviced annually. During particularly hot days, minimize outdoor time, especially between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. when the sun is strongest.

  • Hydrate regularly: Don't wait until you're thirsty to drink fluids. Carry a reusable water bottle and sip on cool water or non-sugary sports drinks throughout the day.

  • Dress for the weather: Opt for loose-fitting, lightweight clothing made from breathable fabrics like cotton, and wear footwear that will protect feet from hot surfaces. This is especially beneficial for older adults with neuropathy in their feet.

A senior woman puts her hand to her forehead while suffering a headache. (Photo via Getty Images)
Headaches, dizziness and nausea are some of the symptoms of heat exhaustion. (Photo via Getty Images)

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include cramps, headaches, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, thirst and fatigue. If you do experience any of these, here's how you can cool down your body to avoid getting heat stroke:

  • Find shade or go inside an air-conditioned building

  • Sit in front of a fan after spraying yourself with cool water

  • Remove extra layers of clothing

  • Apply an ice pack or cold cloth to your neck, armpits and groin

  • Drink water or sports drinks and avoid alcohol or caffeine

  • Take a cool bath or shower

Exposure to harsh sun rays should be a concern for all ages, but it's particularly important that seniors protect themselves since they have fewer melanocytes. These are cells that produce melanin, which protects skin from sunburns. This reduction in melanin production makes seniors more susceptible to sun damage and skin cancer. Seniors can protect their skin by:

  • Applying sunscreen daily: Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher daily, even on cloudy days. Look for formulas with hydrating ingredients like ceramides, glycerin and hyaluronic acid to nourish your skin.

  • Choosing whatever you will use: There is a lot of debate about mineral vs. chemical sunscreens, but they both protect against UV radiation. According to Reppas-Rindlisbacher, "The best sunscreen is the one that people are most likely to use daily."

  • Wearing sun protection gear: When outdoors, wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses to shield your face and eyes from UV rays.

A person spreads sunscreen on a senior man's back at the beach. (Photo via Getty Images)
The best sunscreen is the type that you'll be happy to apply every day. (Photo via Getty Images)

Certain medical conditions and medications can increase a senior's risk of heat-related illness. Dr. Reppas-Rindlisbacher highlights some to watch out for:

  • Medical conditions: Diabetes, heart disease and dementia can make seniors more vulnerable to heat stroke. Heavy alcohol use, obesity and frailty are also risk factors.

  • Medications: Diuretics, certain pain relievers (NSAIDs) and some medications for bladder control, depression and allergies can affect hydration or heat regulation.

If you take any of these medications, it's important to discuss summer safety strategies with your health-care provider.

During hot spells, it's crucial for seniors to have a support system in place. Caregivers and family members can help by:

  • Giving daily check-ins: Regularly check on older loved ones, especially during heat waves.

  • Offer hydration reminders: Help seniors stay hydrated by reminding them to drink fluids throughout the day.

  • Limiting outdoor activity: Discourage outings during peak sun hours and encourage staying cool indoors.

  • Helping prevent falls: Consider buying a medical alert system that includes detection for added peace of mind.

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