Winter Warmth Proves More Elusive for Older People

By Dr. Gerard Muraida

December may not be the coldest month of the year, but it can still introduce a stark change in climate. This seasonal transition can become more challenging the older we get.

As we age, internal temperature regulation becomes more difficult. In addition, perception of this regulation may also diminish, resulting in delayed diagnosis of hypothermia. Hypothermia is what happens when your body temperature gets very low. For an older person, a body temperature of 95 degrees or lower may cause many health problems, including cardiac, renal, or liver damage.

Cold hands and feet, pale skin, lethargy, and confusion may be early signs of hypothermia. Shivering may or may not occur.  More advanced hypothermia may be indicated with difficulty walking, a slow heartbeat, shallow breathing, and difficulty maintaining wakefulness. If you think you or someone you know may be suffering from hypothermia, call 9-1-1.

Staying inside doesn’t ensure that that you will be protected. Try not to let your home temperature drop below 68 degrees. Consider closing off rooms that are not in use. Shut the vents to those rooms as well. Check to be sure your windows are not letting heat escape.

Dress warmly even if you are staying indoors. Be sure to have your legs and feet covered. A warm head covering of some kind will prevent further body heat loss.

If you go outside, be sure to dress in loose layers that allow air to stay between them and keep you warm. Scarves, hats, and gloves are also recommended. If your clothes get wet, change them for dry clothes as soon as possible.

Chronic medical problems can worsen temperature control. Thyroid disorders and diabetes may decrease our body’s ability to regulate temperature. Arthritis and strokes may interfere with dressing appropriately for the season. Memory impairment can also affect how one prepares for the cold weather.

Be mindful of the weather and ask your health care provider how you can safely manage through this winter. If you suspect someone may be at risk, call a family member or friend, or ask how you might lend a hand.

Stay safe and warm this holiday season.

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