Published on 02/10/97

Winter Chill Stalks Elderly, Even in Georgia

Even in the dead of winter, most of Georgia doesn't get all that cold. But it gets cold enough to pose a threat to the state's oldest residents.

Hypothermia is one of those big medical words. It means simply that the body temperature is too low -- usually 95 degrees or lower.

It's not just a matter of feeling cold. If not detected and treated in time, hypothermia can be fatal.

"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 account for about half of all hypothermia victims, Crawley said. Among older people, the poor who can't afford enough heating and those whose bodies don't respond to cold normally are the most susceptible.

Many older people who can afford to heat their homes may not keep them warm enough. They've lived through the Great Depression and are conservative with their spending.

"The elderly often have poor circulation, too," Crawley said. "Many are just not sensitive to body changes, either. 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.

Don't expect people with hypothermia to know it. They often don't.

"They may not realize it because the body doesn't respond to the cold," Crawley said. "They may insist they feel comfortable."

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 -- rapid rewarming could be fatal.

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.

A warm drink of water or milk can help. 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.

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

"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. Long underwear, hats, gloves and sweaters can be important protection. Take special care to protect hands and feet, where circulation is often poor.

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

One thing you definitely shouldn't do is drink an alcohol beverage. "That's the worst thing you could do," Crawley said.

"Alcohol gives you the illusion of warmth," she said. "Actually, though, 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," Crawley said.

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