How Does Cold Weather Affect Older Adults?
Winters in our neck of the woods tend to be cold and wet with the occasional snowstorm. The snow-covered mountains look pretty as a postcard. But freezing temperatures and slick conditions may give you pause before venturing outdoors. Still, Fido needs to be taken for a walk, and the exercise will do you both good. Just be sure to wrap up warm and watch your step.
The Cold Hard Facts of Winter for Seniors
Winter can be dicey for anyone over age 65. When the temperature drops and the north wind blows, it’s important to know the risks and what to do to protect your health. If you’re wondering how cold affects the elderly, here are some things to watch out for.
The older we get, the harder it is to stay warm in winter. That’s because our bodies become less efficient at regulating heat as we age. Some medicines, including over-the-counter cold remedies, can make it hard to recognize the signs of a falling body temperature. If your body temperature dips below 95 degrees, hypothermia sets in. Warning signs of hypothermia include slowed or slurred speech, sleepiness or confusion, shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs, slow reactions, and a weak pulse.
WHAT TO DO: You can prevent hypothermia by dressing warmly. Wear several layers of clothing. People in eastern Siberia typically wear four or more layers of clothing and don’t begin to feel cold until the temperature drops several degrees below zero. It’s also important to wear a hat in cold weather. Close to half your body’s heat is lost through your head. If you’re layered up and still feel cold, walk around to help warm yourself.
Extreme cold can cause frostbite. If the temperature drops below zero, frostbite can set in within 30 minutes. It usually occurs on fingers, toes, nose, ears and cheeks, and can cause permanent damage. Warning signs include firm or waxy skin that turns white or grayish-yellow, and numbness in exposed areas. People with heart disease and other circulation problems are at a higher risk of frostbite.
WHAT TO DO: To protect yourself, cover your extremities. Wear a hat or earmuffs that cover your ears. Opt for mittens instead of gloves (they’ll keep your hands warmer than gloves). Another trick is to wear thin rubber gloves (the kind doctors and nurses wear) inside your winter gloves. And to keep your feet nice and toasty, wear lined waterproof boots.
Heart attacks and high blood pressure are more common in winter because your heart works harder to maintain body heat in winter, while falling temperatures cause blood pressure to rise. Strokes are another cold-related risk because blood in your vital organs becomes thicker and more likely to clot as blood flow to the skin is reduced to conserve body heat.
WHAT TO DO: Dress in layers, protect your extremities, and don’t stay still for very long — keep the blood flowing. Also, think twice about shoveling. Snow shoveling is responsible for thousands of injuries and up to 100 deaths each year. If you must shovel, stop for rest breaks and lift smaller amounts of snow. If you feel dizzy or develop tightness in your chest, stop immediately. Instead of shoveling by hand, consider getting a snowblower. Or hire someone else to clear your driveway. At Timber Ridge, we take care of all maintenance, including snow shoveling.
Flu and Pneumonia
Seniors should be especially careful during flu season. The older you get, the more difficult it becomes for your immune system to fight the virus. Older adults are also more vulnerable to potential complications from the flu, especially respiratory issues like pneumonia.
WHAT TO DO: Get a flu shot every year, and encourage people around you to get the shot as well. Even if you do get the flu after being immunized, the illness is likely to be much less severe. Seniors may also want to get a pneumonia vaccine. In addition, drink plenty of fluids and wash your hands regularly. To reduce your risk of catching the flu, stay away from large crowds.
Snow, ice and sleet make for slippery conditions underfoot. For older adults, falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injury.
WHAT TO DO: Don’t rush to get where you’re going when conditions are treacherous. To prevent falls, take short steps and walk as flat-footed as possible when it’s icy or snowy. Even if you’re just stepping out to get the mail, make sure your path is clear. Sprinkle salt on icy steps and paths. Rubber-soled shoes and trekking poles can also help you stay on your feet. One of the nice things about living at Timber Ridge is that you don’t have to go outside to get the mail, workout in the gym, or grab a bite to eat. It’s all under one roof.
Shorter days and longer nights can affect your mood. They can make you lethargic and less interested in your normal activities. For a small percentage of the population, winter leads to seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression.
WHAT TO DO: It’s normal to have some days when you feel down. But if you’re feeling down in the dumps for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your doctor. For less severe symptoms, try light therapy, exercise, a lighter diet, scented candles, or an herbal remedy. If you’re oversleeping, set your alarm to maintain your normal daily schedule.
Winter Can Be Wonderful from Our Point of View
It’s hard to feel sad when the view from your window looks out over snow-covered hills. Residents at Timber Ridge can hit the nearby trails for a winter hike or just enjoy the view with a fresh cup of coffee and a warm croissant. Of course, there are plenty of indoor activities to keep mind and body engaged, including water aerobics in the heated indoor pool, balance classes, art classes, movies, woodworking, lifelong learning classes, book clubs, committee meetings and volunteer activities. To learn more about our active lifestyle winter, summer, spring and fall, contact us. Or visit the Lifestyle page.