The cold truth about hypothermia is that Americans aged 65 years and older face this danger every winter. Older adults are especially vulnerable to hypothermia because their body’s response to cold can be diminished by underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, some medicines including over-the-counter cold remedies, and aging itself. As a result, hypothermia can develop in older adults after even relatively mild exposure to cold weather or a small drop in temperature.
These tips from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health will help older people avoid this dangerous cold-weather condition. When the temperature gets too cold or the body’s heat production decreases, hypothermia occurs. Hypothermia is defined as having a core body temperature below 95 degrees.
Someone suffering from hypothermia may show one or more of the following signs: slowed or slurred speech, sleepiness or confusion, shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs, poor control over body movements or slow reactions, or a weak pulse. If you suspect hypothermia, or if you observe these symptoms, call 911.
Here are a few tips to avoid hypothermia:
- Make sure your home is warm enough. Some experts suggest that, for older people, the temperature be set to at least 68 degrees.
- To stay warm at home, wear long underwear under your clothes, along with socks and slippers. Use a blanket or afghan to keep your legs and shoulders warm and wear a hat or cap indoors.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funds to help low-income families pay heating bills through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Applicants can call the National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) project at: 1-866-674-6327, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the LIHEAP website Acf.hhs.gov/programs/ocs/resource/liheap-brochures. NEAR is a free service providing information on where you can apply for help through LIHEAP. The Administration for Children and Families funds the Energy Assistance Referral hotline.
The NIA has free information about hypothermia, including the brochure Stay Safe in Cold Weather, the fact sheet Hypothermia: A Cold Weather Hazard, and a fact sheet in Spanish La hipotermia: un peligro del clima frío. You can read these and other free publications on healthy aging on the NIA website or order free copies by calling NIA’s toll-free number: 1-800-222-2225.