As summer bears down, triple-digit temperatures in some parts of the country are no longer an anomaly — they’re normal.
Southern states are grappling with a relentless heat wave, with temperatures topping triple digits. These high temps have arrived much earlier in the season than normal, and millions of people are living under heat alerts.
But even in areas that don’t often see 100 degrees or above, weather is getting hotter and stickier. As temperatures rise, people need to be more careful than ever to stay cool and avoid overheating and illness, particularly as they get older, medical experts say.
“As you age you don’t notice the heat anymore,” says Charles Maddow, M.D., the director of emergency geriatrics at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston. Older bodies are not as hydrated and don’t sweat as much, making it more difficult for them to cool down, he explains.
Heat is the number 1 weather-related killer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC says that on average, about 618 people in the United States are killed by extreme heat every year. The National Weather Service recently forecasted heat indexes near Houston and San Antonio as high as 120 degrees.
So what does all this hot air look like up close? In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where residents are under an excessive heat warning, Denise Holladay, 55, typically vacuums and does laundry in the evening only, when the sun isn’t beating down on her home. During the hottest months, she meets her husband, who works nights, at their gym at 1 a.m. to work out, which saves her from having to get into a hot car.
“I've always been a bit of a night owl,” she says. “However, as I’ve gotten older and the summers have progressively become hotter and longer, more of my life is lived in the late hours.”
Preventing heatstroke and dehydration
Spiking temperatures bring an increased risk of heat-related illnesses like dehydration and heatstroke.
The risk of illness from hot weather is particularly high for those over 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that 36 percent of heat-related deaths in the U.S. were in that age category. As people age, bodies don't adjust as well to sudden changes in temperature, and prescription medications and chronic illnesses can affect a response to heat.
"Heat can really be threatening to older adults,” says Christine E. Kistler, a physician in the Department of Family Medicine and the Division of Geriatric Medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “The heat you might have been able to take in your 30s, you're not physiologically able to cope with in your 80s.”