What kills more seniors than tornados, blizzards, and hurricanes?

April 16, 2015
Volume 12    |   Issue 16

Summer is just around the corner. Though events like tornadoes, blizzards, and hurricanes are more dramatic, extreme heat is actually the most common cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S. It also leads to many people being hospitalized for kidney failure, urinary tract infections, and other serious illnesses. And seniors are the most at risk of experiencing negative health effects in excessive heat.

A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed the most common reasons adults over the age of 65 were hospitalized during periods of extreme heat. Their findings can help both hospitals and the senior population be prepared when the mercury rises.

The research team included members from the Department of Biostatistics at Harvard School of Public Health, who recognized a gap in reporting on the effects of heat on seniors. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) had reported that approximately 31% of weather-related deaths from 2006 to 2010 were due to excessive heat exposure, heat stroke, sunstroke, or a combination of these.

According to the CDC, seniors have trouble in extreme heat because they don't adjust to major temperature changes as easily as young people. Plus, they're more likely to have a pre-existing condition that's affected by the heat. In order to find out how these issues lead to hospitalizations, the researchers analyzed Medicare inpatient claims data. They looked at 23.7 million seniors from across the U.S. who were admitted to a hospital between 1999 and 2010.  They also examined temperature information from more than 4,000 monitors.

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They found that seniors were 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalized for heat stroke on days of extreme heat. They defined extreme heat as two or more days in a row with temperature exceeding the 99th percentile for the county, than they were on less-hot days. They were 18% more likely to be hospitalized for fluid and electrolyte disorders, 14% more likely for renal failure, 10% more likely for urinary tract infections, and 6% more likely for septicemia, a blood infection that can be life-threatening.

The longer the heat lasts, the more the risk goes up. And one thing most people don't realize is that the risk can remain for up to five days after the heat wave subsides. Being aware of these risks can help you be more prepared to protect yourself effectively as temperatures rise.

The researchers determined the link between these issues and excessive heat, but they didn't investigate the cause, which is often dehydration. Dehydration makes all of these issues worse, and this helps explain why seniors have a higher risk than younger people.

Everything slows down as we age, including how we metabolize water. The amount of water you need to drink when you're 50 or older is more than you needed when you were young. One way to avoid dehydration is to drink a glass of water as soon as you get up in the morning. We're all dehydrated when we wake up because it's been several hours since we drank any liquids. Start this good habit no matter the weather, but be extra careful to drink enough water when it's hot outside.

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