Staying Warm in the Winter Can Be a Matter of Life and Death for Older People
In the spring of 2003, a 76-year-old Vermont man with Alzheimer's
disease strayed from his home. Overnight, the temperature dropped
to 32 degrees. The next day a farmer found him lying dead in a
swampy area, the victim of hypothermia precipitated by a cold,
wet environment. Older people in poorly heated homes sometimes
suffer hypothermia, a preventable condition.
Every year, hypothermia kills about 600 Americans, half of whom
are 65 and older, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention. Hypothermia (hi-po-ther-mee-uh) occurs when a person's
normal body temperature drops from 98.6 degrees to 95 degrees.
Older people may be at greater risk for this condition if their
body's response to cold is diminished by certain illnesses like
arthritis and medications like some over-the-counter cold remedies.
The best way to identify someone with hypothermia is to look for
the "umbles" stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles.
Changes in a person's behavior may indicate that the cold is affecting
how well their muscles and nerves work. If you suspect that someone
is suffering from the cold, and have a thermometer available, take
his or her temperature. If their body temperature is 96 degrees
or lower, call 911 for emergency help.
The most important step in treating someone with hypothermia is
to immediately warm the person. Wrap the person in blankets, towels,
coats whatever is handy. You can also use your own body heat
to keep the person warm. Lie close to the victim but be gentle
if you rub their arms and legs because an older person's skin may
be easily damaged.
To prevent hypothermia, make sure your home is warm enough. Set
your thermostat to at least 68 degrees to 70 degrees. Even mildly
cool homes with temperatures from 60 degrees to 65 degrees can
hypothermia. Because heating costs are high, the U.S. Department
of Heath and Human Services recently allocated $100 million in
emergency funds to help low income families pay their heating bills.
For help paying your energy bill, please contact the Low Income
Home Energy Assistance Program (1-866-674-6327; www.energynear.org)
or Eldercare Locator (1-800-677-1116).
For more information, call the National Institute on Aging (1-800-222-2225)
for a free Age Page on hypothermia. The NIA, part of the National
Institutes of Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, leads the federal research effort on the conditions and
diseases associated with aging. Visit the NIA web site (www.nia.nih.gov)
for more information.
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)