En español | As summer bears down, triple-digit temperatures in some parts of the country are no longer an anomaly — they’re normal.
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.
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A recent heat dome has trapped hot ocean air over the Southwestern U.S., and sweltering weather is moving east, extending from the upper Midwest/Great Lakes area to the Southeast. As a result, more than 65 million Americans will be under heat alerts.
Across the country, people and utilities are taking steps to avoid overheating. The Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal utility, is asking customers not to run dishwashers, washing machines or dryers — or even turn on lights — during the hottest part of the day, in hopes of protecting the power grid in its coverage area. The TVA also suggests that people keep curtains closed, unplug electronics and use the microwave or an air fryer to make dinner, instead of an oven, to keep homes cooler.
So what does this hot air look like up close? Earlier this month an Arizona man went viral on TikTok when he cooked hamburgers on the dashboard of his car after the temperature inside it rose to 200 degrees. And in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Denise Holladay, 55, vacuums and does laundry in the evening only, when the sun isn’t beating down on her home. She also meets her husband, who works nights, at their 24-hour 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 heat stroke and dehydration
These 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 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."
The most dangerous conditions, she adds, result from a combination of high daytime temperatures, high nighttime temperatures that don’t give your body a chance to recover and humidity. “If it gets hot and humid enough, even if you sweat, you can't cool yourself,” she says. “While that's not a big problem in the Southwest, where it’s dry, it’s a very big problem in the Midwest and the Southeast, where it's humid and hot.”
Existing health conditions like diabetes, a history of heart disease and high blood pressure — more common in older adults — can also make people more susceptible to heat-related illnesses, she says. Plus, diuretics, sedatives, beta blockers and other heart and high blood pressure medicines may make it more difficult for people to cool themselves. Check with your doctor about whether medications you take could contribute to overheating.
What to watch out for
Heatstroke and heat exhaustion top the list and can be quite dangerous, Kistler says. If you start to feel sluggish, light-headed, nauseated or dizzy after being outside, listen to your body. Get into the shade or seek out air-conditioned areas. A cool shower or pouring cold water over wrists, ankles and the back of the neck can also help get body temperature down, Kistler says. And if you’re outside with someone who suddenly turns pale on a hot day, they could be experiencing heat exhaustion. Get them into a cold shower quickly.
If you're wearing a mask because of the coronavirus pandemic, make sure to take it off so you can breathe freely. If you still feel unwell after cooling down and hydrating, seek medical treatment. Kistler says she worries that people will be reluctant to seek treatment this summer because of the COVID-19 outbreak, but failure to do so for heatstroke can be dangerous.
The best thing to do if you know you’ll be out in hot weather is to prepare behaviorally, says Maddow. Wear thin layers of light-colored clothing that can easily be shed. If you’re outside, set a timer for 15 minutes to remind you to seek out a shady or air-conditioned spot after being in the sun, he says.
Dehydration is a serious problem for older people. It's very important to keep up fluid intake in hot weather, says Krystal Culler, the founder of Virtual Brain Health Center in Poland, Ohio, and a behavioral health expert who has worked with community-based senior programs and adult day programs. Culler said behavioral strategies such as drinking a full cup of water with vitamins or medication, instead of a sip, can encourage people to drink more fluids. “Adding it into something that is already a part of your daily routine helps,” she says.
The CDC's guide for protecting older adults in the heat notes that people shouldn't wait until they feel thirsty to start drinking fluids. The National Academy of Medicine suggests men drink 15.5 cups of fluid per day and women drink about 11.5 cups daily. Drink more in extremely hot weather, particularly if you’ve been sweating.
Culler says she has found that older people tend to drink more if they use small cups which are refilled often, rather than giant “big gulp” style containers, which can look overwhelming.
Also, avoid alcohol and caffeine, as they can be dehydrating.
Avoiding sunburn goes beyond making sure you aren't pink and peeling to the point of discomfort, says Kistler. Older people have an increased risk of skin cancer, so wear sunscreen with broad spectrum protection, a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
Heat rash, that prickly, itchy skin condition, can develop if you're out in the sun. Wearing light-colored, loose clothing made of breathable fabrics can help keep you cool and prevent rashes. Look for clothing made from cotton, linen or those specifically designed to wick moisture away from the skin, she says. Avoid polyester, or any fabric that makes you warm.
Stay inside on the hottest days. Seek out air-conditioned areas and make rules for yourself about not going out between the hours of 10 am and 6 pm, for example, to spare your body the stress of extreme heat.
“No one would go out in a blizzard,” Kistler says. “People should think of really hot days like a sun blizzard and stay inside.”
If you don't have air conditioning at home, some communities offer cooling centers during heat waves. Or consider spending the day at the movies or the mall. There are also low-income energy assistance programs if you're having trouble paying your electric bill. Contact the nearest office for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) for more information.
Take a dip. That could mean going for a swim or a float in a pool or a lake, but it can also mean taking a cool shower or running through a backyard sprinkler (with the grandkids or not). If you like exercising outside, a swim might be the way to go.
Seek out shade. Take a walk in the woods instead of on a path in full sun, or do some gardening under a tree or in a bathing suit with a sprinkler cooling you. If you need to go out, shift your timing to early morning or evening when the sun isn't as strong and more shade is available.
Get more water. Get in the habit of sipping regularly. As people age, the ability to sense thirst wanes, so drink liquids often in hot weather, Maddow says. Flavoring water with fruits and even vegetables like cucumber can make it more inviting, Culler says, and some reusable water bottles include a core to load with lemons, apples or strawberries. Some fruits have a high water content, so choose watermelon or grapes for snacking.
Editor's Note: This article was originall published on June 25, 2020 and has been updated with new information.
Renée Bacher is a contributing writer who covers health, pets and lifestyle. She has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine and Parade.
AARP Home and Family editor Michelle R. Davis contributed to this story.