Published on 01/10/01

Bitter Winter Threatens Elderly Most

The oldest Georgians have a hard time remembering a colder winter than this one. They have a hard time contending with the icy cold, too, that threatens their very lives.

"The really old -- people in their 80s and older -- are most at risk," said Connie Crawley, a nutrition and health specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service. "It's important for neighbors and family to check on them in bad weather."

Older people, Crawley said, account for about half of all victims of hypothermia, or a body temperature harmfully low -- usually 95 degrees or lower. If not detected and treated in time, hypothermia can be fatal.

Poor Among Most Susceptible

With high heating bills, the elderly poor are among the most susceptible. But many older people who can afford to heat their homes may not keep them warm enough.

"The elderly often have poor circulation," Crawley said. "Many are just not sensitive to body changes. They don't realize how cold they are. That makes them more at risk."

Older people's body tissues are more delicate, too, she said. That raises the danger of tissue damage, especially if circulation is poor.

Hypothermia Symptoms

People with hypothermia are likely to have pale, waxy skin, slow breathing and slowed, irregular heartbeat. They may be dizzy and drowsy. Other signs are trembling on one side of the body or in one arm or leg, slurred speech, low blood pressure, momentary blackouts and fleeting memory.

If you suspect someone has hypothermia, call a doctor. If the symptoms are severe, get emergency medical help. And while you wait for help, begin the rewarming process.

Put the person into a warm bed. Rewarm him or her gradually. Don't use hot water bottles and heating pads. They can get too hot and damage the skin. "The best thing is to get warm towels out of the dryer," Crawley said.

Don't Rub

Don't rub the person's hands or feet, she said. Instead of improving circulation, it's much more likely to injure tender tissues. Just cover the person warmly and get medical help.

A warm drink of water or milk can help, though. So can raising the feet to force blood to the head.

By far the best treatment, though, is prevention. If you can, keep the room temperature at 70 degrees, or no lower than 65.

Other simple, low-cost things can help guard against hypothermia. One of the simplest, Crawley said, is to dress warmly.

Dress in Layers

"Dress in layers," she said. "That's important, because the air trapped between the layers of clothing acts as insulation."

Wool is warmest, she said. If you're sensitive to wool, wear a cotton layer underneath. Other fabrics will do, but cotton is best. "Cotton wicks away sweat," she said. "That helps you stay warm."

Wear extras, too. A warm hat will help retain a lot of body heat. Long underwear, gloves and sweaters can be important protection, too. Take special care to protect hands and feet, where circulation is often poor.

Keep Bed Toasty

Flannel sheets, a thermal blanket and a comforter can keep a bed toasty. Wearing socks to bed, and even gloves and a hat, can help, too.

Don't use heating pads or hot-water bottles, Crawley said. Older people often can't detect when such things are too hot and can burn them.

The worst thing you could do is drink an alcoholic beverage.

No Alcohol

"Alcohol gives you the illusion of warmth," Crawley said. "Actually, it will make you less alert, less aware of your body condition. You'll be more likely to fall asleep and fail to take appropriate action to protect yourself from hypothermia."

Eating warm, nutritious foods helps, though. So does exercise, within reason. "It helps keep the circulation up," she said.

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.