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Hypothermia in Elderly Adults: Symptoms to Watch For

Hypothermia is an emergency medical condition that occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, resulting in dangerously low body temperatures. Normal body temperature is around 98.6 F. Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature falls below 95 F.

It is particularly important to watch for hypothermia in elderly adults because they are more susceptible to the cold. As a person grows older, the body has less fat (nice to hear some good news about aging, right?), slower circulation and a lower metabolic rate. All of these things can contribute to a senior losing heat more easily than a younger person. Some illnesses can make hypothermia in elderly patients more likely such as diabetes, thyroid disorders and Parkinson’s.

Causes of Hypothermia in Elderly Adults

Hypothermia occurs when the body becomes too cold to function. This can be caused by:

  • Wearing clothes that aren’t warm enough for the weather conditions. Going outside in cold weather without a heavy coat, gloves, hat and warm boots can lead to hypothermia.

  • Staying out in the cold for too long - even with warm clothing - can eventually lead to hypothermia.

  • Getting wet and being unable to move to a warm, dry location. This sounds like something that would only happen when you fall into a lake. But think about shoveling snow. You go outside in warm clothes and as you shovel and sweat the clothes become damp. You stop shoveling and your body cools down in your wet clothes. You can start shivering - a major symptom of hypothermia - before you even realize you are cold.

  • Living in a house that’s too cold, either from poor heat or too much air conditioning. This is another important one for seniors. Some elderly people have a difficult time sensing the cold, and will sit alone all day in a cold house without realizing they could be in danger.

Symptoms of Hypothermia in Elderly Adults

The Mayo Clinic recommends watching for these hypothermia symptoms in elderly adults:

  • Shivering

  • Slurred speech or mumbling

  • Shallow breathing

  • Weak pulse

  • Clumsiness or unusual lack of coordination

  • Drowsiness or very low energy

  • Confusion or memory loss

  • Unconsciousness

Because hypothermia happens so gradually, it is difficult to notice if it is happening to you. The confusion caused by hypothermia exacerbates this self-awareness. This is why it is so important to be aware of your elderly loved ones and watch for signs of hypothermia.

If you think your elderly loved one is suffering from hypothermia, call 911. Move the person inside or to a warmer location. Turn the heat up inside the house if possible. Remove wet clothing. Make sure any movement is small and gentle as sharp movements could cause an irregular heartbeat.