Older adults run a higher risk of health problems and injuries related to winter weather, including hypothermia, frostbite, and falls in ice and snow. They are especially susceptible to cold weather because they have less body fat, less efficient circulation and a slower metabolism.
Elders are at an increased risk of hypothermia because their body’s response to cold can be diminished by certain illnesses such as diabetes and some medicines, including over-the-counter cold remedies. According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than half of hypothermia deaths are among seniors. For an older person, a body temperature of 95 degrees or lower can cause health problems, such as a heart attack, kidney problems, liver damage, or worse. It can be difficult to recognize hypothermia in elders because older people tend to shiver less or not at all when their body temperature drops.
Hypothermia can even occur indoors if the temperature inside isn’t warm enough. Elders should keep their thermostats above 65 degrees, dress warmly and seek assistance through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) if they lose heating. LIHEAP is a federally funded assistance program that helps low-income families stay warm during winter and cool during summer. Help can also be found from the National Energy Assistance Referral service at 1-866-674-6327 or by emailing the National Energy Assistance Referral project.
People over age 60 are also at higher risk of getting the flu due to weaker immune systems. The CDC estimates that between 70 and 85 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths occurred in people 65 years and older during the previous flu seasons. Between 54 and 70 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations occurred in that age group as well.
Elders with heart disease and other circulation problems are at a higher risk of frostbite. Frostbite is most likely to occur on body parts that are far away from the heart, like ears, fingers, toes, nose, cheeks or chin. When it’s cold outside, your heart works double time to keep you warm. Strenuous activities like shoveling snow may put too much strain on your heart, especially if you have heart disease. Shoveling can also be dangerous if you have problems with balance or have osteoporosis. Older adults should ask their healthcare provider whether shoveling is safe for them.
Slips on the ice are a major risk for seniors in winter. Make sure steps and walkways are clear before you walk. Either clear the snow and salt your walkways at home or hire someone to do it. Look out for wet pavement as it could be iced over. Wear boots with non-skid soles to prevent slipping. If you use a cane, replace the rubber tip before it is worn smooth. Consider an ice pick-like attachment that fits on the end of the cane for additional traction.
The low light conditions of winter can exacerbate Sundowners Syndrome for elders with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Sundowners Syndrome increases agitation, anger, confusion and memory loss during the evening hours. The season’s low light can disrupt the body’s internal clock (known as circadian rhythms). Additionally, vision can become more challenging for elders as the sun goes down and the quality of light diminishes, and shadows increase.