Why Elderly People Feel Colder and What Caregivers Need to Know

Why Elderly People Feel Colder and What Caregivers Need to Know

January 30, 2024
As caregivers, understanding the physiological changes accompanying aging is crucial for optimal care, especially regarding thermal comfort. This article delves into why older adults often feel colder and offers practical advice for caregivers to ensure their comfort and safety.

Understanding Age-Related Changes in Body Temperature Regulation

As we age, our body undergoes several changes that affect its ability to regulate temperature. These changes include a decrease in metabolic rate, alterations in blood circulation, and changes in the function of the sweat glands. The result is a diminished ability to conserve heat and perceive temperature changes, making older adults more susceptible to feeling cold.
Decreased Metabolic Rate: One of the fundamental changes with aging is a reduction in metabolic rate. The metabolism plays a crucial role in generating body heat. As it slows down with age, less heat is produced, leading to a greater susceptibility to cold.
  • Alterations in Blood Circulation: Aging can cause changes in blood circulation, often leading to decreased blood flow to the extremities. This reduced circulation can result in colder hands and feet and a lower overall body temperature.
  • Reduced Function of Sweat Glands: The function of sweat glands also changes with age. This affects the body's ability to cool down efficiently in warm environments and can disrupt the overall regulation of body temperature.
  • Diminished Ability to Conserve Heat: Older adults may have a reduced ability to conserve heat due to the loss of subcutaneous fat and changes in skin thickness. Subcutaneous fat acts as an insulator, so its reduction can lead to increased heat loss.
  • Challenges in Perceiving Temperature Changes: The body's ability to sense temperature changes can decrease as we age. This means elderly individuals might not realize when they are becoming too cold, increasing the risk of hypothermia.

The Impact of Chronic Health Conditions on Thermal Comfort

Many elderly individuals have chronic health conditions such as diabetes, thyroid disorders, and cardiovascular diseases. These conditions can further impair the body's ability to maintain a stable internal temperature. For example, diabetes can lead to peripheral neuropathy, reducing the sensitivity to limb temperature changes.

Medications and Their Role in Temperature Sensitivity

Several common medications prescribed to older adults can impact their body's heat regulation. For instance, beta-blockers used to treat high blood pressure can slow the heart rate and reduce circulation, decreasing body temperature.
Impact of Beta-Blockers: Beta-blockers, often prescribed for high blood pressure and heart conditions, can slow the heart rate. This reduced heart rate can lead to decreased circulation, particularly to the extremities, resulting in lower body temperature and increased sensitivity to cold.
  • Other Medications Affecting Body Heat: Various medications, including over-the-counter drugs, can alter body temperature regulation. For example, certain sedatives and muscle relaxants may decrease the metabolic rate, while some antidepressants can impair sweating, affecting the body's cooling mechanisms.
  • Understanding Medication Side Effects: Elderly individuals and their caregivers need to understand the potential side effects of medications, especially regarding how they might impact body temperature regulation.
  • Consultation with Healthcare Providers: Regular discussions with healthcare providers about medication regimes are crucial. This includes reviewing the types and dosages of medications and understanding their impact on body temperature and overall health.
  • Monitoring for Signs of Temperature Sensitivity: Careful monitoring for signs of temperature sensitivity, such as feeling unusually cold or having trouble warming up, can indicate that a medication affects body temperature regulation.
  • Adjusting Lifestyle and Environment: Adjustments might be needed in the living environment and daily habits to counteract the effects of these medications. This could include keeping the home warmer, dressing in more layers, and using extra blankets.

Practical Tips for Caregivers

  • Maintain a Warm and Comfortable Environment: Keep the living space warm, especially in colder months. A thermostat around 68-70°F (20-21°C) is generally recommended.
  • Encourage Appropriate Clothing: Layering clothes can help retain body heat. Ensure that older adults can access warm socks, sweaters, and blankets.
  • Monitor Indoor Temperature Regularly: Use a reliable thermometer to keep track of the indoor temperature, ensuring it remains comfortable and safe for older adults.
  • Be Mindful of Bathing and Showering Practices: Hot baths and showers can pose a risk of burns or sudden drops in body temperature. Monitor water temperature and assist as needed.
  • Encourage Physical Activity: Regular, gentle exercise can help boost circulation and maintain muscle mass, which is essential for heat production.
  • Diet and Hydration: A well-balanced diet, rich in nutrients, and adequate hydration are crucial in maintaining overall health and body temperature.

Recognizing the Signs of Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a severe risk for older adults, especially in cold weather. Signs include shivering, confusion, slurred speech, and drowsiness. If you suspect hypothermia, seek medical assistance immediately.

Critical Signs of Hypothermia: The primary signs to watch for include:

  • Shivering: This is often one of the first signs, but it's important to note that in severe hypothermia, shivering can stop.
  • Confusion or Memory Loss: Look for unusual mental status changes, such as confusion, memory loss, or difficulty concentrating.
  • Slurred Speech: Difficulty speaking or slurred speech can be a sign of hypothermia.
  • Drowsiness or Fatigue: Excessive drowsiness, particularly in a cold environment, should not be overlooked.
  • Weakness or Lethargy: General weakness or decreased physical activity can indicate the body's struggles to maintain heat.
  • Cold, Pale Skin: In severe cases, the skin may become cold, pale, or even blue.
  • Immediate Action is Crucial: If hypothermia is suspected, seeking medical assistance is critical. Hypothermia can progress rapidly and is potentially life-threatening.
  • First-Aid Measures: While waiting for medical help, gently move the person to a warm place, replace any wet clothing with dry clothes, cover them with blankets, and offer warm (not hot) drinks if they are conscious and able to swallow.

Embracing Technology for Enhanced Care

Advancements in smart home technology can be invaluable for monitoring and maintaining a comfortable living environment for older adults. Smart thermostats, for example, can automatically adjust room temperature, while wearable devices can monitor vital signs and alert caregivers to potential issues.

Understanding the physiological reasons why older people feel colder and taking proactive steps to ensure their comfort and safety is vital to caregiving. By being aware of the factors that affect temperature regulation in the elderly and implementing practical measures, caregivers can significantly enhance the quality of life for their elderly charges.

Contact BrightStar Care of Oklahoma!

Looking into caregiving services may be overwhelming, but with BrightStar Care Oklahoma, we make the process much easier for you. We are confident that our team of professionals will assist you in looking for the right caregiver to care for your loved one by keeping you in the loop and more. Contact us today to learn more about caregiving services! Our office is at 3000 United Founders Blvd Suite 103G, Oklahoma City, OK, 73112. You may also call us at 405-896-9600 We look forward to hearing from you!