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Hypothermia and the Elderly

Shivering is one of those amazing things our bodies do to keep us operating at top speed.  It's as if we had an internal thermostat.  Too hot, we sweat in order to cool off.  Too cold, we shiver to stay warm.  But did you know that as we age the thermostat doesn't always work the way if should?  Not good, especially in the kind of weather we have been experiencing lately, and one of the reasons why elderly people are at risk of developing hypothermia.  Hypothermia is when the core body temperature is below 95 degrees F.  It occurs if the body loses heat faster than it can be produced.  Severe hypothermia can be fatal.  

Why elderly people are at more risk for hypothermia:
*Lower metabolic rate, which makes it more difficult to maintain a normal body temperature. when the room temperature drops below about 65 degrees F.
*Decreased ability to detect changes in the temperature.
*Decreased shivering and constricting of blood vessels, which ordinarily helps maintain core body heat by diverting blood away from the arms and legs.
*Chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, stroke, underactive thyroid, and Parkinson's disease..
*Medications, such as antidepressants and sedatives, which may change how the body regulates temperature.

Preventing hypothermia in an elderly person at home:
*Wear several layers of clothing.
*Wear long underwear, socks and slippers.
*Wear a hat or a cap.
*Keep the thermostat at 68-70 degrees F.
*Drink warm beverages, but be cautious with alcoholic beverages because they can increase risk.
*Check with the doctor about medication risks.

If you are caring for elderly people, be mindful that they may not be able to tell you they feel cold, may not be able to simply reach for a sweater or blanket, or may be concerned about the cost of turning up the heat.  Also remember that they may not even realize it when they are cold.

Signs of hypothermia in adults.
Look for the "umbles"- stumbles, mumbles, fumbles or grumbles.
*Confusion or sleepiness
*Slowed, slurred speech, or shallow breathing
*Weak pulse
*Change in behavior or in the way a person looks
*A lot of shivering or no shivering: stiffness in the arms or legs
*Poor control over body movements or slow reaction time.

What to do if you suspect hypothermia:

If you suspect someone has hypothermia, take his or her temperature.  If it is 96 degrees F or below, the person needs medical attention right away.  The best thing to do while you are waiting is to keep them warm and dry.  Warm drinks are fine, but no alcohol or anything with caffeine.

Snuggle up and stay warm!

Gayle Holmes, Marketing Director

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