Bitter cold poses extra risk to seniors

Life After 50

Health & Fitness

February 08, 2004|By Korky Vann | Korky Vann,Hartford Courant

Frigid temperatures present a danger to older Americans, according to the National Institute on Aging. Record cold and blustery winds create potentially deadly conditions for seniors, who run a higher risk of developing hypothermia. The condition can occur when the body's temperature begins to fall below 98.6 and after only a brief exposure to extreme cold.

Paul Dewey discovered this a few weeks ago when he set out with his grandchildren for what he expected to be a brief hike in the woods behind his Granby, Conn., home. The outing turned out to be no walk in the park after the 71-year-old man slipped on a patch of ice, fell and broke his kneecap in two places.

"As soon as I went down, I knew I was all done when it came to moving," says Dewey. "I was able to hitch myself up on to some brush, which put some insulation between me and the snow, but that was about all I could do."

Luckily, 7-year-old David Eke was able to follow his grandfather's instructions, run the half mile to home and summon help by dialing 911. Police arrived at the house within a few moments of receiving the call, but it took another 20 minutes for them to reach the heavily wooded area where Dewey had fallen. By then, he'd been exposed to 18-degree temperatures for almost an hour. When he arrived at the hospital, his temperature had dropped to 95 degrees.

"I'm used to the outdoors," says Dewey. "I'd bundled up in an Army field jacket, boots and insulated gloves, but it wasn't enough. By the time the paramedics arrived I was shaking from the cold, and I really hadn't been out that long. It happened so quick, it was shocking."

Dewey returned home after surgery to repair his knee and a two-week hospital stay. He expects to make a full recovery. Statistics show he was lucky. According to NIA, accidental hypothermia kills about 700 Americans each year -- most of them older adults who can lose their natural ability to keep warm in the winter due to inactivity, illness, alcohol consumption, medications and other factors that interfere with the body's ability to regulate temperature.

And, experts say, millions of older Americans who keep indoor temperatures low to save on heating costs are also at risk.

"The elderly don't adjust to temperature changes as efficiently as a younger person might," says Rosemary Harding, vice president of clinical services for the Visiting Nurse & Health Services of Connecticut. "Cold weather can tax the lungs and heart, make breathing difficult. Hypothermia can set in just a short time and once it does, people can become disoriented and unable to get back inside."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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