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Older Adults and Cold Weather

The most frequent winter injuries we see are due to patients slipping and falling. Nationwide, the data show that the risk of hip fractures rises significantly in the winter because of falls on ice and snow. Unfortunately, I frequently see seniors who try to be careful by limiting their outdoor activities in the winter but then end up slipping on their front steps or when taking out the trash. To avoid this, we encourage all adults to wear boots with non-skid soles even on short trips outside and to be certain their walkway is clear and treated with sand or salt. If using a cane, it’s important to be certain that the rubber tip has been replaced before it has worn out. Also, some health professionals recommend using specialized tips for canes and walkers that are designed to provide extra traction on the ice. However, the safest plan is to avoid walking on slippery surfaces.

In general, falls are the most common cause of serious injury in older adults. Of community-dwelling adults over 65 years old, more than one-third fall every year. I encourage all older adults to discuss their risk of falls with their physician. In particular, anyone who has fallen is worried about falling or feels unsteady should undergo a complete fall evaluation. Some of the actions you can take to prevent fall include: have your doctor or pharmacist review your medications; start an exercise program to improve balance and strength; have your eyes and feet checked; and finally, make your home safer. You can work with your healthcare team to address all of these key areas of fall prevention. In the winter, it’s critical to avoid slipping on ice and snow. So use caution when going outside: Wear boots with non-skid soles, be certain that your path is well-lit and make sure there are handrails on all staircases.

Older adults are also at increased risk for hypothermia, which happens when your body temperature drops to a dangerously low level. This can happen if you’re outside in the very cold weather, but it even can happen if your house is very cold. Experts recommend keeping your heat set at 68 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you’re having trouble paying your heating bills, there are many different communities and government organizations that may be able to help; to find assistance near you, use the Eldercare Locator: 1-800-677-1116 (toll-free) or If you set your thermostat so that your house becomes colder overnight, sleep in extra layers of clothing, including long underwear and a hat. During the day, wear extra layers of clothes and slippers with socks. If you have to go outside in cold weather, be certain to wear multiple layers of clothing: two to three layers of loose-fitting clothing will help trap air in between the layers to keep you warm. Be sure to wear a hat, boots and a scarf to cover your mouth and nose. If you can, wear mittens, which are much warmer than gloves and help protect your hands from the cold. You may want to let someone know you’re going outside, and it’s important to always carry a fully charged cell phone so you can call for assistance.

Everyone should know the warning signs of hypothermia. In older adults, these may include: cold feet and hands; pale skin; feeling very weak, tired or sleepy; being confused; having trouble walking; slow breathing and low heart rate. Hypothermia is a medical emergency. If you think you or someone you know is suffering from hypothermia, call 911.

Many common diseases increase an older adult’s risk in cold weather. Seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia frequently have poor judgment. They may not complain about feeling cold and may not dress appropriately for the weather. Families and caregivers of adults with dementia need to be alert and closely supervise them in the winter. Many older adults have trouble moving around because of severe arthritis, Parkinson’s disease or strokes, which make them more vulnerable in the cold weather. Also, many common diseases, including diabetes, lead to poor circulation, which is an additional risk of injury in the cold. Finally, there are medications that may increase your risk for hypothermia. Your physician or pharmacist can review your medications with you and let you know if you’re at increased risk in the cold.

If you have any questions about Senior Healthcare please call us at 904.513.3240 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Rene today!