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‘Life-Threatening’ Cold Temperatures Put Older Adults at Risk

To stay safe, remain indoors and keep emergency kits stocked

close up of Woman's hands holding knitted scarf

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The record-breaking arctic temperatures sweeping across much of the United States, which the National Weather Service calls “life-threatening,” could pose serious health hazards for older adults in particular.

“We find that older adults aren’t as aware of a drop in body temperature,” says Chrissy Kistler, a geriatrician and physician at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As we age, she explains, the body’s ability to regulate temperature naturally declines. Older adults with hypothermia, for instance, may not shiver much or at all. Instead, the American Geriatrics Society says to look for symptoms such as pale or ashy skin, or feelings of tiredness and confusion.

With an estimated 90 million people facing temperatures of zero degrees or less, and record-low wind chill readings of minus 50 to minus 60 degrees in some parts of the Midwest, Kistler says that staying inside is the best way for everyone, but particularly older adults, to stay safe. It’s also a good idea to make sure your car and home emergency kits are stocked in advance.

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Even at home, however, lower temperatures can be hazardous, since older adults are susceptible to developing hypothermia in houses that aren’t properly heated. The National Institute on Aging recommends keeping the thermostat set between 68 and 70 degrees at the minimum. Kistler says it’s also important to stay bundled up, and that two or three thin layers of clothing are more effective at keeping you warm than one thick layer. (Also be mindful, she says, of the risks of heating aids like electric blankets, which can cause burns, and space heaters, which have been linked to house fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.)

Even after the polar vortex clears, other winter-weather hazards will remain. To limit the risk of falls, those with limited mobility or conditions such as osteoporosis should take care to avoid icy patches while out and about, Kistler says. And because cold weather forces your heart to work harder, she says that those with heart conditions should be particularly mindful of strenuous activities such as shoveling snow.  

If you or a loved one is experiencing signs of frostbite or hypothermia or other worrisome symptoms after spending time outdoors, you should seek medical attention right away, Kistler says. “Don’t delay.”