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Climate Temperature Troubles With Older Adults: What You Need to Know

News of seniors succumbing to summer's sizzling heat or winter's biting cold seems to surprise people all across the country. However, withstanding hot and cold weather and regulating body temperature become more challenging as people grow older. Medications, chronic ailments, and entrenched habits contribute to increased risk of a heat disorder called hyperthermia, and a cold disorder called hypothermia.

Some physical changes associated with aging put us at higher risk. A sense of security or finances also adds to the problem. For example, some seniors may not feel safe opening windows. Others hesitate to use the air conditioner or heater due to the cost.

Body Temperature Regulation

The body primarily cools through perspiration. As moisture on the skin evaporates, the body cools. Core temperature remains stable as long as fluid and salt are replenished. Older people, though, may lose their sense of thirst. By the time an older person is feeling thirsty, they may already be quite dehydrated. If severe dehydration occurs, the body stops sweating to conserve fluid loss, which leads to a rise in the core body temperature.

In cold temperatures, one way that the body attempts to keep warm is by shivering. But, when a person ages, there are many conditions that can affect the body's ability to remain warm. Thyroid conditions, circulatory ailments, and dementia are some examples. In addition, if older adults live a more sedentary lifestyle, they do not produce as much body heat. Medications, illicit drugs, and alcohol can also impede a person's ability to stay warm.

Other factors that may interfere with the body's ability to regulate temperature include:

The Dangers of Extreme Heat

A body that stops cooling can create a medical emergency.

First aid for heat-related illnesses includes:

Preventing Heat-Related Illnesses

Several actions can prevent these heat emergencies:

Drink Up

It is important to stay hydrated. When the weather becomes hot, drink water throughout the day. Avoid beverages that contain alcohol and caffeine.

If you have a condition and your doctor instructed you to limit your fluid intake, make sure that you talk to your doctor so that you have a plan to stay hydrated during the summer heat.

Stay Cool

Take these steps to stay cool:

Make arrangements for someone to check on you a couple of times a day.

The Dangers of Extreme Cold

A drop in core body temperature can be deadly. Symptoms include confusion; sleepiness; slow, slurred speech; a weak, slow pulse; extremity stiffness; and slow reactions. Shivering may or may not be present. Check your body temperature with a thermometer. If it's below 96ºF (35.6ºC), call for medical help.

To help someone with hypothermia until emergency medical help arrives, keep the person warm with additional blankets or your own body. If the person can swallow, offer warm liquids, but no alcohol. Alcohol expands blood vessels near the surface and lets needed warmth escape. Do not rub the person's skin.

Preventing Cold-Related Illnesses

Take these steps to stay warm when the days turn cold:

Remember, never use your stove or oven for heat.

Make arrangements for someone to check on you a couple of times a day.

Be Prepared for Temperature Changes

Aging makes regulating body temperature more challenging during hot and cold spells. Seasonal temperature changes and activities once taken for granted pose potential problems with declining reserves, chronic conditions, and medications. Play it safe—wear seasonal clothing, modify habits, and create a buddy system to check on each other.


National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

NIH Senior Health


Health Canada

Public Health Agency of Canada


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Hypothermia: a cold weather hazard. National Institute on Aging website. Available at: https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/hypothermia-cold-weather-hazard. Accessed November 16, 2017.

Last reviewed November 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP  Last Updated: 12/16/2015