Woman blowing on hands

Source: Dreamstime

Shivering is one of those amazing things our bodies do to keep us operating at top speed. It’s as if we had an internal thermostat. Too hot, we sweat in order to cool off. Too cold, we shiver to stay warm. 

But did you know that as we age the thermostat doesn’t always work the way it should? Not good, especially in the kind of weather we’ve been experiencing lately, and one of the reasons why older people are at increased risk of developing hypothermia.

hy·po·ther·mia:

When the core body temperature is below 95 °F. It occurs if the body loses heat faster than it can be produced. Severe hypothermia can be fatal.

Why older people are at more risk for hypothermia

  • Lower metabolic rate, which makes it more difficult to maintain a normal body temperature when the room temperature drops below about 65 °F.
  • Decreased ability to detect changes in the temperature.
  • Decreased shivering and constricting of the blood vessels, which ordinarily helps maintain core body heat by diverting blood away from the arms and legs.
  • Chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, stroke, underactive thyroid, and Parkinson’s disease.
  • Medications, such as antidepressants and sedatives, which may change how the body regulates temperature.

Cold facts

A recent CDC report states that during 2006-2010, each year at least 2,000 people in the United States died of weather-related causes.

  • 6% attributed to floods, storms or lightning
  • 31% attributed to heat overexposure
  • 63% (two-thirds) attributed to exposure to excessive cold, hypothermia, or both.

Cold-related deaths increased with age — nearly half of those who died of hypothermia were 65 or older.

The cost of oil may be down this year, but a person on a fixed income (like many elderly people) may still worry about their heating bills and try to cut back. In addition, some elderly people may not be able to tell you they feel cold, may not be able to simply reach for a sweater or blanket or, especially if they have dementia, may not even realize it when they’re cold.

Something else to keep in mind is that what might seem too warm for a younger person may not be warm enough for an older person. Ideally, the thermostat should be set between 68 °F and 70°F. Even just slightly lower can trigger hypothermia in a frail, elderly person.

Warning signs of hypothermia in adults

  • Confusion or sleepiness
  • Slowed, slurred speech or shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Change in behavior or in the way a person looks
  • Lots of shivering or no shivering at all; stiffness in the arms or legs
  • Poor control over body movements or slow reactions

What to do if you suspect hypothermia

If you suspect someone has hypothermia, take his or her temperature. If it’s 96 °F or below, the person needs medical attention right away. The best thing to do while you’re waiting is to keep him/her warm and dry. Warm drinks are fine, but no alcohol or anything with caffeine.

Preventing hypothermia indoors

  • Wear several layers of clothing.
  • Wear long underwear, socks and slippers.
  • Wear a hat or a cap.
  • Keep the thermostat at 68 °F – 70 °F.
  • Drink warm beverages, but be cautious with alcoholic beverages because they can increase the risk.
  • Check with a doctor about medication risks.

Heating assistance in Maine

A major source of heating assistance in Maine is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). For more information, visit either the Office of Community Services website or the Maine State Housing Authority website.

You can also call 2-1-1 to ask about heating assistance programs in your community or visit the 2-1-1 website.

If you’re aware of other programs that may help someone in Maine, please list them in the comment section below.

And when the temperature drops, please remember to check on anyone you know who lives alone and/or may be at risk of developing hypothermia.