Summer's here. Seniors take care.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

June 2013

The statistics are grim. Summer heat is hazardous to seniors and hundreds die every year from heat stroke and dehydration. Neighbors and family members need to keep in touch on a daily basis with elderly persons who live alone. The temperature outdoors might not seem so high but the indoor temperature in a poorly insulated, non-air-conditioned house may be several degrees higher.

Dehydration, the loss of water, leads to poor mental function and damage to organs such as the kidneys. There is a greater tendency for blood to clot, raising the possibility of heart attack or stroke. Many people are aware that as we grow older the sensation of thirst is not a reliable indicator of our need for fluid but there are other factors that come into play that worsen with the aging process.

Wrinkles and thinning of the skin are inevitable as we grow older but they ought to make us consider that there's more to it than appearance. Time takes its toll on skin structures including sweat glands, so that high summer temperatures fail to induce perspiration that enables the body to stay cool. As the body's internal temperature rises, so does the risk of heat exhaustion or a worse condition known as heat stroke. Older individuals are more likely to be taking prescription drugs for high blood pressure or Parkinson's disease for example, worsening the possibility of heat stroke.

Aging takes a toll on the appetite and so does summer heat. The result can be inadequate intake of food that contains sodium and potassium, electrolytes that are critical for normal function of the heart and nervous system.

Several chronic diseases, especially type 2 diabetes, cause poor kidney function. That makes it more difficult for the body to concentrate the urine and thus to conserve water. The inability to concentrate the urine means a loss of one of the indicators of inadequate fluid intake. Urine that is dark brown and malodorous reveals insufficient fluid intake but older persons who cannot concentrate their urine may not develop this sign. A properly hydrated individual passes urine that is light yellow with only a slight odor.

All these factors place seniors at high risk of summertime dehydration and heat stroke. Prevention consists of providing plenty of fluids, including liquids that contain adequate sodium and potassium, such as juice or sports drinks, and a safe, cool environment.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.