How Our Body Stays Cool in the Heat and What Changes as We Age

Senior woman relaxing, Provence, France

Credit: iStock

In the past several decades, heat waves have been occurring more frequently, with a recent major heat event breaking temperature records in Europe. When people don’t have access to air conditioning, fans or simply a shady spot, the extremely high temperatures can be dangerous, especially for the elderly. While young adults are more able to keep their body temperature from rising too high, older adults have more trouble staying cool in the heat. Limited ability to lower body temperature can cause heat stroke and increases the risk of heart and blood vessel complications and death.

Our body prefers to keep a core temperature around 99 degrees Fahrenheit—warming up to 102 degrees or higher can be problematic. This means there is not much room for error when it comes to temperature regulation, especially in the extreme heat.

To cool down, we begin to sweat. The air moving over our wet skin lowers our body temperature through evaporation. Young adults increase their heart rate and the amount of blood pumped with each heartbeat. This sends more blood to the surface of the skin to release heat.

Compared to younger people, older adults store more heat. This is because we tend to sweat less as we age and, in some older people, the heart isn’t able to increase the amount of blood pumped per heartbeat as efficiently. Researchers are looking at why these age-related changes happen and how older adults can prevent heat strain during heat waves.

It’s important to protect ourselves when the mercury rises. Remember these tips when temperatures soar:

  • Avoid direct sunlight.
  • Stay in a cool place with air conditioning or fans.
  • Limit physical activity outdoors in the middle of the day.
  • Exercise inside when possible.
  • Drink plenty of nonalcoholic fluids.
  • Take a cool shower if needed.

Stay cool!

Joseph Watso

Joseph C. Watso, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital and the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Watso is interested in studying the role of lifestyle habits, such as diet and exercise, in maintaining heart and blood vessel health throughout aging.

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