Older Folks Often Ignore Summer Heat Warnings

Pride, cost concerns may play a role, study finds

FRIDAY, July 6, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Every summertime heat wave brings repeated warnings to older folks to try and stay cool, but a new study suggests few are listening.

Too often, many older Americans aren't taking the protective measures that could mean the difference between life and death when heat advisories are issued, researchers say.

Of more than 900 people aged 65 years of age or over interviewed in four cities, "virtually everyone seemed to be aware when there was a heat warning -- about 90 percent," said study author Scott C. Sheridan, an associate professor of geography at Kent State University in Ohio.

"But once I started asking questions about taking the recommended actions for protection against heat, the percentages fell. Only about 70 percent said they did anything at all, and only 50 percent said they changed their behavior," Sheridan said.

That type of inaction could prove lethal, he added, since summertime heat waves have claimed more lives than hurricanes, floods or other well-publicized natural disasters.

According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3,442 Americans died from heat-related causes between 1999 and 2003.

Until now, it has not been clear just how effective warnings might be in helping to save lives during heat waves.

"I worked on the development of heat-warning systems, but there was only anecdotal evidence about whether people cared or did anything about them," Sheridan said. So, financed by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he evaluated such systems in four cities -- Dayton, Ohio; Philadelphia; Phoenix; and Toronto, Canada.

The study was published in the July issue of the International Journal of Biometeorology.

Almost half of the hundreds of people interviewed did little to change their behavior based on the warnings, Sheridan found.

Their reasons for inaction ranged from ego to economics, he said. "In Phoenix, it was almost a point of pride to say you could survive no matter how hot it got," he said. "I even had people in their late 70s saying the message was not meant for them because 'it was meant for the elderly.' "

Those at highest risk for heat-related death include the elderly and people with chronic diseases, but "a lot of people were reluctant to believe they were in the targeted groups," Sheridan said. "Even those who felt they had significant problems dealing with daily activities were reluctant to say the warnings were aimed at them."

About a third of those questioned said they were reluctant to turn on an air conditioner because of its cost.

Dr. John B. Murphy, associate director of the division of geriatrics at Brown University and president-elect of the American Geriatrics Society, said older Americans do have ways of minimizing their risk.

"Older people are particularly at higher risk for three reasons," Murphy said. "One is the physiological changes that occur with age that put people at higher risk for heat stroke. Also, more older people are likely to have chronic diseases. And third, they are more likely to be taking a number of different medications."

A first protective measure on a very hot day is to reduce physical activity, Murphy said. "This is not the day to do your gardening or take a long walk," he said. "Not being in the sun is important."

It's best to wear light clothing and give up a well-loved sweater for the day, Murphy added. "And drink lots of fluid," he said. "Some people who have heart failure might have been told not to drink a lot of water. They should talk to their doctors. Also, you can take a shower or bath, or sponge yourself with lukewarm water. A fan can be helpful but not particularly in a house with closed windows. It's just moving hot air around."

Preventive measures are essential, because if heat stroke should occur, "it moves very rapidly," Murphy said.

Heat stroke may be signaled by suddenly becoming very flushed, experiencing a weakening of the pulse and the onset, in some cases, of muscle cramps. Those symptoms call for emergency medical care, Murphy said.

More information

There are more hot weather safety tips at the American Geriatrics Society.

SOURCES: Scott C. Sheridan, Ph.D., associate professor, geography, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio; John B. Murphy, M.D., associate director, division of geriatrics, Brown University, Providence, R.I.; July 2007 International Journal of Biometeorology
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