When the weather turns cold, it's time to check on your older family member for signs of the umbles. That's a handy term health experts use to remind people of the possible signs and symptoms of hypothermia: stumbles, mumbles, fumbles and grumbles.
Hypothermia, defined as a dangerously low body temperature (below 95 degrees F), can cause a host of physical and cognitive reactions, according to the National Institutes of Health. Signs and symptoms include extreme shivering or—at the opposite end of the spectrum—stiffness in the arms or legs, slowed or slurred speech, confusion and behavioral changes.
Hypothermia can lead to serious, even deadly heart problems. Low body temperature can also impair brain function, making it difficult to think clearly and move easily, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These health dangers of hypothermia make it vital to know the risks for the condition, how to intervene when it occurs and what you can do to prevent it.
Some pre-existing illnesses increase the risk of hypothermia. People with hypothyroidism, diabetes, certain skin conditions and other problems that affect blood flow and heat retention are more susceptible. So are those who have arthritis, Parkinson's disease and other illnesses that limit mobility, as well as conditions like stroke that affect memory and clear thinking.
As noted in this article from the Mayo Clinic, many of the medical conditions that adversely affect the body's temperature regulation occur more frequently in old age. Age-related dementia may also be a factor, as these patients are more likely to wander outside in the cold without being properly dressed.
If your friend or family member is displaying possible signs and symptoms of hypothermia, take her temperature and act quickly to get her warm if it's low. The safest response is to get her to a hospital, which will have special thermometers that can read very low body temperatures to diagnose hypothermia and treatments for warming the body from inside out.
You can also take interim steps to help raise her body temperature. Move her to a warmer room—but be gentle, since jarring movements can cause irregular heartbeats. Wrap her in extra clothes, blankets or towels. Even snuggling up close to transfer some of your own body warmth can make a difference.
How To Prevent Hypothermia
A few simple precautions can help ensure your elderly friends and family stay warm enough in cold weather. The National Institutes of Health recommend keeping the household heat at 68 degrees or higher. Don't let them stay in the house if the heat system isn't working properly.
Encourage them to stay indoors when it's extremely cold, and make sure they are eating well. The body has to maintain sufficient body fat to stay warm. Also, be aware that certain medications can affect body heat. If they must go outdoors, have them dress warmly—preferably in layers. The NIH guide points out that tight clothing can prevent the blood from flowing freely and actually cause the loss of body heat.
Active seniors who love the outdoors might find a high-tech solution in a new kind of shoe insert on the market. Digitsole is an interactive insole designed to keep your feet warm in the most frigid temperatures. It comes with a rechargeable battery and a smartphone app that you use to set the temperature as cozy as you like. Another high-tech option for active seniors is the Lively Wearable fitness tracker, designed specifically for seniors with a discrete urgent response button.
When it comes to preventing hypothermia, helping your aging family members bundle up to ward off the umbles may save their lives.
Read more: Home Automation Helps Seniors Stay at Home
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