Do you know how to protect your heart, avoid falls, and prevent hypothermia? These health tips for seniors will help you when it gets cold.
Cold weather presents specific health challenges as you grow older. Protect yourself, or any elderly friends and relatives, with these winter health and safety tips.
Protect your heart during winter
Cold weather causes your arteries to narrow, decreasing the supply of blood going to your heart. At the same time, your body must keep warm by pumping blood to your extremities. This puts increased strain on anyone’s heart during winter, but can be particularly dangerous for those over age 65, especially if you already have a heart condition.
Even a drop in temperature as small as two degrees can be dangerous, according to research cited by AARP. This means that seniors in warmer areas, such as Florida, are still more at risk for heart attacks in the winter months.
You can protect your heart during winter by avoiding strenuous outdoor activities. Ask a neighbor or relative to take care of shoveling snow or carrying heavy groceries.
If you must work outside, dress in layers to stay warm, work slowly, and pay attention to how cold you become. If you are shivering, take a break to go inside and warm up. If you experience any chest pain, stop your activity immediately, go somewhere warm to rest, and tell someone about your symptoms.
Avoid illness during winter
Cold air can exacerbate lung conditions such as chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, and emphysema, making it harder to take deep, full breaths. To protect your breathing, cover your mouth with a warm scarf when you go outside in cold weather, and always carry any emergency medication such as a rescue inhaler.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that seniors are at greater risk for complications due to the flu. Between 71 and 85 percent of flu-related deaths occur in people over age 65. You can protect yourself by getting a flu shot in the fall; there is a high-dose version of this vaccine available for seniors.
You should also get a pneumococcal vaccine, which protects against pneumonia, bloodstream infections, and meningitis. Pneumococcal diseases often develop as flu-related complications in those older than 65 and can be fatal, especially if you are in poor health.
As you age, your body has a harder time warming itself, putting you at greater risk for developing hypothermia in the winter months. Hypothermia can be fatal, so it is important to stay warm, both indoors and out.
During very cold days, stay indoors in a heated space as much as possible. To help your body warm itself, the CDC recommends eating balanced meals, warm sweet drinks, and broth, along with avoiding alcohol. Dress in clothes that keep you warm but not sweaty, such as sweaters and wool socks.
If you must go outside in cold weather, you should wear:
- A hat
- A scarf that covers your neck and mouth
- Gloves or mittens that fully cover your hands and fingers
- Loose layers of clothing
- Water-resistant coat and shoes
- Warm socks
Do not stay outside for extended periods of time in cold weather. Shivering is the first sign that your body is losing too much heat. If you begin shivering, go inside immediately and have a hot drink to warm up.
Avoid falls during winter weather
Cold weather can make you move more slowly and become less coordinated. This puts you at a higher risk for falls, especially in icy conditions.
If it snows, make sure someone has shoveled paths around your home before you go outside. Watch for patches of ice, particularly black ice. Wear boots that are meant for walking in snow, and move slowly in unfamiliar areas or when climbing steps and curbs. If possible, have a neighbor or family member salt your steps and walkway to prevent ice from building up.
You are also at an increased risk for falling indoors if ice or snow from your clothing melts and creates puddles, or if you walk around in socks. Wear slippers with good traction on the soles and have a designated spot to leave wet clothing where it will not drip on the floor.
Protect your mental health
Seniors are less likely to get outside and get exercise during the winter. This, along with less exposure to sunlight and lower levels of vitamin D, can put you at risk for poor mental health.
You can protect your mental health in the winter by arranging activities that will take you outside or allow you to socialize, such as exercising at a club and visiting with family or friends. Volunteering has also been shown to improve mental and physical well-being in older adults.
If you feel constantly low-energy, in a negative mood, or unhappy, speak with your doctor. You may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder or depression.
Safety tips for driving in winter
When driving in the winter, drive slowly and carefully, and keep your headlights on to help other drivers see you. Make sure your fuel tank is kept at least half full and that you use a wintertime formula for windshield fluid. The CDC also recommends keeping your car stocked with emergency supplies, including a cell phone, warm blankets, water, first aid kit, jumper cables, and sand or kitty litter to increase tire traction.
If it is icy or snowing, or if your ability to move your neck and arms is limited, do not drive. Call a relative, friend, or neighbor and ask them to take you where you need to go.
If you need help with transportation or other tasks during the winter, your local Department of Aging will be able to recommend organizations that can help you. In the United States and many parts of Canada, you can also call 2-1-1 or visit the 211 website to be connected to nearby resources.
March 30, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN