Keeping Older Loved Ones Warm in Winter

by Beth Lueders

As Mother Nature’s thermometer begins to dip in late fall and throughout winter, so does body temperature for many elders. While older loved ones characteristically complain of being cold and turn up the thermostat, there is scientific data to support their feeling chilly.

Aging skin is thinner and less likely to tolerate fluctuating temperatures. When a person is cold, the heart pumps less blood to the skin, and tiny blood vessels in the skin constrict to conserve heat. Age reduces the elasticity of blood vessel walls and thins the fat layer under the skin that helps preserve body heat. An older individual’s skin is limited in the precise control of changes in both cold and heat.

America’s Penn State physiologist W. Larry Kenney, who has studied the effects of age on temperature regulation for 35 years, notes, “With aging, multiple redundant changes occur in the skin, and they’re all conspiring against the ability to dilate and constrict skin blood vessels.” Kenney’s extensive work with body temperature also finds that the circulation of blood in the skin can cause changes in the body’s coronary arteries and overall vascular health. Being too cold or too hot can stress the heart.

Dangers of Cold Weather for Elders

Older adults lose body heat faster and are less able to tolerate cold than younger adults. If a person’s body temperature drops much below the common base of 37 C / 98.6 F, dangerous health problems can arise, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, liver damage, and heart attack. Hypothermia sets in when a person’s body temperature goes below 35 C / 95 F. Left untreated, hypothermia can shut down the body’s heart and respiratory systems and lead to death.

Older people are at greatest risk for cold-related death — worldwide statistics consistently report that more people die from excessive cold than excessive heat. Living inside in intense air conditioning or with inadequate heat can invite hypothermia. Also, older adults with confused thinking may not be self-aware of their dropping body temperature, so caregivers need to be extra vigilant to check for signs of hypothermia including shivering, slurred speech, shallow breathing and a weak pulse.

Causes of Low Body Temperature

Besides exposure to cold temperatures and moisture, older adults can face a drop in body temperature because of a number of other medical conditions and health factors, including:

  • Medications such as beta blockers, sedatives, antipsychotics and antidepressants
  • Stroke
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
  • Sepsis (widespread infection)
  • Malnutrition and anorexia
  • Nerve damage
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Anesthesia

Susceptibility to cold can be a symptom of medical issues like diabetes or high blood pressure. Because of poor circulation, diabetics run the risk of decreased body temperature in their extremities. They also may not accurately sense temperature changes in their hands and feet, which can cause injury they may not feel. For people with high blood pressure, certain medications such as beta blockers can reduce blood circulation to the hands and feet, and calcium channel blockers relax the blood vessels, which may accelerate heat loss. Having high cholesterol can also restrict blood flow and lower body temperature.

How to Keep Elders Warm

Prevention of cold exposure to the elderly takes precautionary measures before winter sets in and ongoing observation by family members, caregivers and those familiar with the older loved one’s health and living environment.

These tips can help caregivers keep older loved ones warm this winter:

  • Keep the home properly heated at a temperature of 20 C / 68 F to 21.1 C / 70 F.
  • Winterize windows and doors with weather stripping and caulk.
  • Close heat vents and shut doors in rooms that are seldom used.
  • Dress the elder in warm layers that can be removed if he or she gets too hot.
  • Put socks and slippers on the older adult and use a blanket over legs.
  • Make sure the elder wears a hat, scarf and gloves when going outside.
  • Check weather reports and know that snow, rain and wind can increase heat loss.
  • Have the loved one change out of damp or wet clothes right away.
  • Help the elder practice sound nutrition to fuel the body’s heat and energy sources.
  • Ensure the older adult stays fully hydrated — dry air temperatures inside and outside can cause dehydration.
  • Support the elder in eating regular meals to stimulate the body’s own thermostat.
  • Encourage the loved one to avoid alcohol consumption, which can trigger heat loss.
  • Learn the temperature-lowering effect of specific medications and over-the-counter drugs.
  • Be aware that some space heaters and fireplaces are fire hazards and can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Devise an evacuation plan in case of a power outage or the furnace/heat source breaks down.
  • Create a plan for family and friends to check on the elder regularly, especially during colder weather.

More Information About Cold Weather Safety

For additional information about how to shield elders from cold weather complications, contact the following public agencies: