With Age Comes Greater Risk of Hypothermia

Higher temperatures when inside and more layers when outside are advised

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SATURDAY, Jan. 31, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Older people often focus their wintertime worries on fears of slipping on the ice, but they ought to be equally concerned about the risks of being too cold, advises the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

The ability to endure lengthy exposure to the cold lessens as people age, putting the elderly at a greater risk for hypothermia -- the condition in which body temperature falls below normal and stays there for a prolonged period of time.

Certain medical conditions, medicines and a sedentary lifestyle can make older people extra vulnerable even to mild cold snaps.

But there are steps older adults can take to prevent hypothermia, including:

  • Dress in several layers of loose clothing when going out. Wear a hat, scarf, gloves or mittens, along with a warm coat.
  • Wear long underwear under your clothes, along with socks and slippers, when inside. Use a blanket or afghan to keep legs and shoulders warm. Wear a hat or cap indoors if necessary.
  • Set the thermostat to at least 68 degrees. Home temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees can trigger hypothermia in older people.
  • Check with your doctor to see if any of your medications -- whether prescription or over-the-counter -- might increase your risk for hypothermia.

People with hypothermia tend to act confused, slow or sleepy, have slowed or slurred speech and might shiver or have stiffness in the limbs. If you suspect someone has hypothermia, take the person's temperature, and if it is 96 degrees or lower, call 911.

Cold temperatures resulted in more than 6,000 hospitalizations and 827 deaths in 2006, according to the latest figures the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The group's analysis of 6,182 cold weather-related hospitalizations found that:

  • Men accounted for about 40 percent more hospitalizations for exposure to cold than women.
  • People 65 and older were hospitalized for cold-related incidents almost 7 times more than people age 18 to 44 and 3 times more than those 45 to 64.
  • Hypothermia (which can cause loss of physical and mental abilities and, in extreme cases, death), frostbite, respiratory failure, and pneumonia were the most common reasons for cold weather-related hospitalizations.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about hypothermia.

SOURCES: U.S. National Institute on Aging, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, news releases, January 2009

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