When summer arrives, most of us want to spend time outside. But Mother Nature isn’t necessarily welcoming for everyone this time of year. Heat and sun can create health and safety problems for some older people, especially during prolonged exposure. But a little knowledge and preparation, you can easily enjoy summer fun alongside your family and friends.
1. Stay hydratedProbably the biggest summer health concern for older adults is dehydration. As we get older, it’s easier to dehydrate because our thirst mechanism and ability to sweat can both be reduced, says Michael Perskin, MD, assistant professor of geriatric medicine and palliative care at New York University Langone Medical Center. Without these two sensations, you may not be aware you are losing fluids so you don’t replenish fluids.
Other signs of dehydration are dark, concentrated urine or dizziness when you stand up. To avoid this altogether, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water -- an easy rule to remember is eight 8-ounce glasses a day. If you’re exercising vigorously outdoors, coconut water is a good way to replenish electrolytes like potassium and sodium. A salty snack, like pretzels, works well for this, too.
2. Get physical in the morning and eveningIf you're over 65, it’s a good idea to avoid strenuous exercise outdoors when temperatures start to rise. But taking a walk, gardening or playing a round of golf can keep you active and healthy. If you are going outside for exercise, remember to do so in the morning or evening, when it’s cooler.
Avoid staying outside for extended periods of time when it’s hot out, and take a friend or family member with you in case you get overheated. Carrying a water bottle with you will help you remember to stay hydrated. And if the heat gets to be too much, move indoors – get your steps in at the mall or try out classes at a local senior center.
3. Get insects to bug offIt’s important to use bug spray and cover up to avoid mosquito bites (especially when they are their most active – from dusk to dawn). This is especially key since some mosquitoes may be carrying West Nile virus, which is more likely to cause problems among people over 50 and those with weakened immune systems.
If you are in one of these two groups, you have a harder time fighting infection, making the chance of developing meningitis or encephalitis (swelling around the brain) from West Nile more likely. If you’ve been around mosquitoes and have any of the following symptoms – fever, headache or body aches, nausea, a skin rash on your torso, stiffness in the neck or disorientation – call your doctor immediately.
4. Mind your medsThere are a handful of medications that potentially increase problems for older people in the summer, according to Carla Sutter, director of operations at SYNERGY HomeCare. This includes beta-blockers, a class of medications that reduce the heart rate, slowing circulation and making it tougher to cool off.
Two other types of medications that increase your risk of dehydration are antidepressants (which can make you sweat more than normal) and diuretics (which encourage urination).
5. Travel safelySummertime is typically vacation time, and if you’re flying or driving long distances, it’s critical to make sure you move around frequently, says Mattan Schuchman, MD, a gerontologist from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Schuchman recommends stopping the car to move around a bit or getting up from your airplane seat and walking up and down the aisle about every two hours to help with circulation.
Moving your legs keeps your blood pumping, which reduces your risk of getting deep vein thrombosis (blood clots in the leg veins), which in some cases, break free and cause an embolism in the lungs.
6. Carry emergency infoWhether you’re traveling or staying home this summer, one helpful thing to carry with you is an ICE (in case of emergency) card, says Andrew Craig, RN. The ICE card should include your name, medications, allergies, medical conditions and contact information for family members, your primary care provider and pharmacy.
Having one of these cards on hand provides important health and contact information to emergency responders and admitting physicians in case you’re physically or mentally unable to provide it in an emergency. Even if you aren’t incapacitated, you probably won’t be able to remember a lot of this pertinent information if you need it quickly or are in distress.
7. Shield your skinAs you age, sun exposure can not only dry and damage the skin, it also increases your likelihood of developing skin cancer. If you want to get a daily dose of Vitamin D, you only need about 15 minutes of sun exposure each day. (If you are Vitamin D deficient, talk to your doctor about taking supplements).
Beyond that, you should be covering up and putting on sunscreen. Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, a dermatologist at Rapaport Dermatology of Beverly Hills, recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Before going outdoors, apply a thin layer to any skin that is exposed (don’t forget the ears and scalp if you have hair loss). You need to reapply every two to three hours when you’re outside, particularly if you’re in the water or exercising.
8. Take extra skincare precautionsNot only does our skin thin and get drier with age, in the summer, heat, wind and air conditioning can all wreak havoc on it during the summer. To avoid dryness and keep your skin looking and feeling good, Shainhouse recommends applying moisturizer within three minutes of getting out of the bath or shower to hold in water and seal the skin barrier.
Products with antioxidants help repair and limit future damage from UV exposure. Look for ingredients like Vitamin C, Vitamin E, green tea extract and resveratrol. Finally, retinoids and retinols help turn over skin cells quickly, a process that slows as we age. Using them before bed can help reveal healthy, stronger and thicker skin, says Shainhouse.
9. Protect your eyesAs important as it is to protect your skin from the sun, it’s just as crucial to keep your eyes safe, especially as you age. Some glaucoma medications can make the eyes more sensitive to light, and long-term sun exposure has been shown to contribute to cataracts. It’s important to block those UV rays with sunglasses – just be sure to look for ones that have 100 percent UV protection.
10. Choose the right clothesWearing sunscreen helps protect from sun damage, but avoiding exposure altogether is an even better bet. Keep in mind the protective power of clothing when outdoors during the summer. A wide-brimmed hat will shield your scalp, ears and face and keep you cool. Longer sleeves and pants will protect your skin.
Remember that when it’s hot out, clothes should fit loosely, natural fibers are more breathable and a tighter weave helps minimize UV penetration. And if you’re out at the pool, beach or a ball game, remember that your best accessory may be an umbrella to keep you shady and cool.