7 Winter Health Risks for Seniors & How to Avoid Them
When the weather outside is frightful, it’s not just the cold seniors have to worry about. As the temperature drops, the risk of health problems and weather-related injuries rises for older adults. During the winter season it is important that seniors, and their caregivers, take extra care and precautions to prevent serious illness and injury. Here are some of the more common winter health threats for seniors and how to minimize the risk.
Winter is cold and flu season, and while the flu is no fun at any age, for seniors it can quickly develop into pneumonia. Adults over the age of 50 have a higher risk of developing pneumonia and represent 1 in 6 of all pneumonia diagnoses. While it’s a good idea for all of us to stay up on our flu shots, it’s even more important for our aging adults. For those in their golden years, it’s recommended each year to get a flu shot and also the vaccine for pneumococcal pneumonia.
#2 Heart attack
The hard work of shoveling snow and clearing sidewalks can be dangerous, but it’s not just overexertion in winter weather that can lead to an increased risk for heart attack. Heart attack numbers increase more than 50 percent in the winter—even in places that don’t see snow. The explanation isn’t exactly clear, but research has found that even a slight drop in temperature can result in a rise in heart attacks over the following two weeks. One theory is that arteries constrict as a response to the cold, making the heart work harder. We also feel cold more acutely as we age, making it harder to regulate body temperature and putting additional stress on the heart.
We can’t always prevent heart attacks, so it’s also important to know the warning signs. Pay attention to symptoms like pressure in the center or left of the chest, discomfort in back, shoulders, neck or jaw, and shortness of breath. If these symptoms occur, don’t wait. Call 911 immediately.
Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops to a dangerous level (below 95 degrees) and can’t produce enough energy to stay warm. Seniors have an increased risk of hypothermia because they generally have lower body heat and a diminished ability to sense temperature. Other medical conditions, like heart problems, can also increase a senior’s hypothermia risk.
Symptoms of hypothermia include skin that is pale or ashy and cold, mental confusion, sleepiness, and slowed reactions. Shivering can also be a symptom of hypothermia, but don’t rely on shivering alone. Seniors tend to shiver less or not at all with a drop in body temperature. As with heart attack, if you think someone is experiencing hypothermia, call 911.
Usually affecting the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes, frostbite occurs when part of the body freezes. While frostbite can be mild, it can also be severe and result in the loss of limbs. Seniors with heart disease or circulation problems are at particular risk for frostbite. Frostbite symptoms include skin that is hard or waxy, feels numb, and is white or gray.
To prevent frostbite, cover all parts of the body when going outside. If the skin starts to hurt or turn red, go back inside where it’s warmer. Frostbite can occur in as little as 30 minutes of exposure to freezing temperatures.
#5 Seasonal depression
More than 6.5 million Americans over the age of 55 are affected by depression, and winter months can make it worse. Less daylight and colder weather make it difficult for seniors to engage in outdoor activities or visit friends, leading to seniors being inside for long periods of time and feeling isolated. Regular exercise, even simple indoor activities, and a diet rich in vitamin D can help seniors beat the winter blues.
Winter snow and ice make for slippery surfaces, and slippery surfaces make falling all too easy for anyone, but especially for seniors. Fortunately, many weather-related falls can be prevented with simple precautions. Ensuring steps and walkways are clear before walking on them, wearing shoes with non-skid soles, and even changing the rubber tip of a cane can keep seniors from falling.
#7 Lung issues
Cold winter air is drier air and that creates issues for people with conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema. When the air is cold, airways tighten and make breathing more difficult. To prevent issues breathing cold winter air, use a face mask or scarf wrapped around the nose and mouth when going outside.
While winter can be a bit more treacherous than the warm months, with awareness and simple planning, you can greatly lower the risks. For senior homecare agencies and care providers, using software that helps assess risks and track indicators for both physical and mental health can greatly ease the stress of minimizing these risks. For example, at SeniorGrowth, our data-driven assessment tool and analytics cover many key indicators related to the above risks—and right now you can get started for FREE!
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