Temperature Swings May Put Elderly at Risk

North Carolina is notorious for its wild daily temperature swings. You might start the day needing long sleeves and long pants, change to shorts by lunchtime, then put on a jacket after sunset. For most of us, this is nothing more than a minor sartorial inconvenience; but for people over age 65, temperature swings can be dangerous to their health.

According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, even seemingly small changes in summer temperature swings–changes as tiny as 2° F–may shorten life expectancy for people with chronic medical conditions. According to the lead scientist for the study, Antonella Zonobetti of the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH):

“The effect of temperature patterns on long-term mortality has not been clear to this point. We found that, independent of heat waves, high day to day variability in summer temperatures shortens life expectancy. This variability can be harmful for susceptible people.”

Previous studies have confirmed the association between heat waves and higher death rates. But this new research goes a step further. Although heat waves can kill in the short term, the authors say, even minor temperature variations caused by climate change may also increase death rates over time among elderly people with diabetes, heart failure, chronic lung disease, or those who have survived a previous heart attack.

The research showed that for each 2° F increase in summer temperature change, there was a 2.8% to 4% increase in death rate for susceptible seniors. Calculations suggest that summer temperature swings could account for more than 10,000 additional deaths per year.

Why? What could that tiny temperature fluctuation do that is so dangerous?

Researchers say that older people and those with chronic health conditions have a hard time adjusting to extreme heat. As their bodies struggle to adjust, the elderly experience physiological stress, which can cause frail or sick bodies to become sicker.

Although there is not much to be done about this, Dr. Robert Glatter, interviewed for WebMD, says that friends, relatives, and neighbors should try to keep a closer eye on people with chronic health problems, not just on days with blazing heat, but also during sudden weather snaps.

“Watch for any changes in their daily vital signs and complaints,” says Glatter, [an emergency medicine specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York] who was not involved in the study. “Make sure you’re listening very carefully to their complaints.”

Make sure the elderly have appropriate temperature controls in their living environments, and provide them with air conditioning and fans, if possible. And if your loved one lives in a nursing home, spend a full day there in the summer to see how well the facility controls temperature.

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