In early January, a "polar vortex" invaded the lower 48, and made a most unpleasant visit to the eastern part of the U.S. Turns out the polar vortex is really a wayward jet stream that draws arctic cold south where it does not belong and causes unusual or even record cod. This recent blast of frigid air is the perfect reason for us to consider cold weather and healthy aging, especially since we are almost into February, and that is usually the coldest month (actually the coldest days generally come between January 22 and February 22).
Is Cold More of a Problem As We Age?
Yes, in a word, it is. There are a number of reasons that the very cold weather represents greater risk to those of us who are over 65. First of all, as one ages, the compensatory mechanisms for keeping warm are less robust. We do not, for example, shiver like we used to in cold weather (you probably have noticed that). Also, many of the medicines that older people take can interfere with normal temperature regulation, for example, there can be vasodilation with some anti-hypertensive medicines. Some common illnesses also keep us from normally staying warm, such as diabetes and some neurological diseases. Speak with your doctor about your own medical problems and medicines to best understand your own risk with cold exposure.
The most significant problem with sustained exposure to cold is hypothermia. This is the name for the drop of one's body temperature below 98.6 to 96 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Hypothermia can be fatal and must be recognized as early as possible to prevent death. The symptoms of hypothermia are: mental confusion, apathy, shivering or rigid muscles, impaired coordination, slow heart beat and breathing, and finally loss of consciousness. If these symptoms are present in anyone who has been exposed to the cold, take the person's temperature and see if it is below normal. The apathy is particularly important because once one has hypothermia, it doesn't matter that one is cold. (I actually experienced this once when much younger and canoeing and capsizing in ice cold weather - when finally ashore I was totally comfortable and unaware of my danger.)
Treatment of Hypothermia
If hypothermia is present or even unsafe cold exposure has occurred there are important things to do. The most important is to warm the person with blankets or other coverings and gently move the person to a warm, dry, ambient environment. If the person's temperature is 96 degrees or below, call 911 and have the patient transported to the hospital for professional care. Be careful not to give a confused person warm beverages (avoid all food or beverages), and do not warm too aggressively with warm/hot water or electric blankets. Absolutely give no alcohol - it will only worsen the condition!
Prevention Is the Best Medicine
As with most preventable problems, they should be prevented! When it is cold outside there are a number of common sense things that you should do to protect yourself, family or friends. The list in the table has most of the things to do when cold weather strikes - all of these are actions that can prevent hypothermia.
Even though most of these actions are obvious, some bear comment. Because as we age we are much more susceptible to cold, it is important to be aware from weather forecasts of when cold fronts are expected and to stay in a well-heated environment most of the time. Wet and wind are a double threat in the cold and make it less possible to maintain warmth, so avoid both. Wearing layers of loose fitting clothes is important both inside and out, obviously when outside more layers are needed. Because the face, neck, and hands are high vascular areas and we can lose heat quickly from them, it is best to keep them covered.
Falls occur often because of ice and this makes being outside a particularly hazardous situation if the temperature is below 32 degrees. Falls can lead to permanent disability and are common as we grow older and do not have the same balance as we used to have. Likewise, black ice can be deceiving on the roads and icy roads can lead to car crashes, especially on bridges and overpasses.
The best thing is to stay in a warm (above 68 degrees) home and be prepared should the electricity go out or the heater fail. We should have the equivalent of a hurricane survival kit with blankets, batteries, water, etc. available when frigid weather is forecast.
The Bottom Line
Winter is part of our life, but each one becomes more of a threat to our well-being as we age. We have to actively prepare and protect ourselves against really cold weather because we can't tolerate it like we used to.