Exercise caution with Alzheimer’s and extreme heat

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By Jim Herlihy | Alzheimer’s Association

As temperatures rise, extreme heat can have a significant impact on everyone’s safety, but these conditions can be especially stressful and confusing for individuals with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. 

“Alzheimer’s disease causes a number of changes in the brain and body that may affect the individual’s safety, including changes in sensitivity to temperatures,” said Meg Donahue, director of Community Engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado.

According to a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), people living with Alzheimer’s were 6 percent more likely to die on an extremely hot day, with an added 6 percent increased risk for individuals with previous hospital admissions for atrial fibrillation.

There are more than 6.5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, including 76,000 Coloradans. Planning ahead for weather changes, including extreme heat, can prevent injuries and help a person feel more relaxed and less overwhelmed.

“People living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias can be more vulnerable than normal during extreme weather because their judgment may be impaired and they may be unable to communicate their discomfort,” said Donahue. “It’s important to take extra precautions with these individuals during periods of extreme heat or other severe weather conditions.”

The Alzheimer’s Association is offering important safety tips for caregivers and families dealing with Alzheimer’s and other dementias to prepare for the hot days ahead:

• Make a plan. Family and friends should prepare accordingly and make plans to regularly check in on a person living with Alzheimer’s during periods of extreme heat. Arrange alternative plans for cooler spaces if air conditioning is unavailable, and dress in loose-fitting, light clothing.

• Pay attention at night. Keep people living with Alzheimer’s cool by using fans and keep the air conditioning on. At night, low temperatures can still exceed 75 degrees with little fluctuation in humidity levels, making for difficult sleeping conditions, heightened anxiety and increased agitation.

• Prepare for behavioral changes. Research shows that heat can increase agitation and confusion in people. Try to remove behavioral triggers by addressing the person’s physical needs related to the heat, then tending to their emotional needs.

• Stay hydrated. Increased water intake is essential to maintaining good hydration and health during extreme heat. Know the signs of heat exhaustion to avoid heat stroke. Dehydration may be difficult to notice in a person living with Alzheimer’s, as signs like increased fatigue, dry mouth and headache may be difficult to detect. People taking diuretics, sedatives or certain heart medications may not sweat as much as others, but this does not mean they are not hot.

• Stay indoors out of the sun. Heat stroke and heat exhaustion may occur in extreme heat conditions, but symptoms may be difficult to detect in people living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Keep individuals cool by using air conditioning at home or move to a public place, such as a senior center or shopping mall. If you must go outside, dress appropriately with loose-fitting, light clothing; wear a hat; and apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

• Stay informed. Keep an eye on local weather forecasts. High temperatures are not the only cause for concern. Humidity and air pollution can cause breathing difficulties. The person should be monitored regularly and seek medical attention if symptoms arise of dehydration, heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

The Alzheimer’s Association is here to help families prepare for and cope for such extraordinary circumstances. For more information, visit www.alz.org or call the association’s free helpline, staffed by trained professionals around the clock, at (800) 272-3900.