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How to Recognize the Signs of Heatstroke in Older Adults

The long-term side effects of heatstroke for adults 65 and older can be devastating, including impaired mental status and kidney malfunction.

There’s nothing like having the warm summer breeze brush across your face as you stroll under the sun. While many of us enjoy summer activities, spending too much time in the hot sun can be dangerous, especially for adults 65 and older. Heat-related illnesses, such as heatstroke, occur when the body is no longer able to stay cool—and people 65 and up account for the most heat-related hospitalizations.

When left untreated, heatstroke in older adults can lead to muscle deterioration, kidney malfunction and impaired mental status. We spoke with primary care physician Dr. Bradley Johnson to help us recognize, prevent and treat heatstroke in older adults.

Knowing the Risks and Warning Signs

Headshot Dr. Bradley Johnson

Dr. Bradley Johnson

Heatstroke is caused by the body’s inability to cool itself off. “The human body uses sweat to lower and maintain its body temperature. But in the summer, when the body gets hot in an already humid climate, sweat can’t evaporate as easily as it normally does,” says Dr. Johnson.

Those over age 65 cannot adjust as well to sudden changes in temperature, making them especially vulnerable in hot temperatures. Older people are also more likely to have chronic conditions or take prescription medications that affect the way their bodies respond to heat. “Many older adults take medications, like diuretics or beta blockers, for age-related conditions like high blood pressure or angina. The medications increase the risk of developing heat exhaustion, heatstroke and dehydration because they lessen the body’s ability to regulate its temperature,” says Dr. Johnson.

The warning signs of heatstroke in older adults are not as obvious as those in younger adults. While heatstroke presents in younger adults as clammy hands or a dry mouth, symptoms in older adults include:

  • Delayed or reduced sense of thirst
  • Lack of perspiration
  • Change in behavior
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Fainting

Preventing Heatstroke

When it comes to preventing heatstroke, the best thing to do is build in rest periods throughout the day. “If you’re going outside on a hot and humid day, limit your exposure to heat by making sure you have frequent breaks planned out ahead of time. Plan to go back home or to the grocery store, shopping mall or another air-conditioned location so you can get some rest, hydrate and cool down,” says Dr. Johnson.

Even on the most beautiful days, don’t forget to take breaks as you mow the lawn or work in the garden. “Set a timer for every 20 minutes to remind yourself to get out of the sun, sit in the shade and take a drink of water,” says Dr. Johnson.

Treating Heatstroke

Confusion is the tipping point between having mild heatstroke symptoms and being at risk for long-term damage to the body. “When your body overheats, it’s essentially baking your organs until they swell and malfunction. If you don’t let your body cool down, you could permanently damage your brain, heart and kidneys, among other vital organs,” says Dr. Johnson. “Once someone shows a change in mental status or stops responding, seek medical attention immediately.”

To treat heatstroke symptoms at home, Dr. Johnson recommends:

  • Finding air conditioning as soon as possible
  • Placing a cool washcloth or ice pack underneath your neck, underarm and inner thigh
  • Staying as hydrated as possible.

If you feel yourself begin to overheat, it’s important to take the appropriate steps to bring down your body temperature as quickly as possible. “Prevention and quick intervention are essential to heatstroke mitigation in our older communities,” says Dr. Johnson. “Remember: It is always better to be safe than sorry.”

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From the Experts, Healthy You