Extreme weather, either too cold or too hot, has its cardiovascular risks. Hot temperatures cause blood vessels to dilate, lowering one’s blood pressure, while elevated blood pressure can lead to heart attacks or strokes. In many cases, low blood pressure raises the risk of fainting or passing out. So how does one spot the risk factors when facing such extreme climes? Read ahead, as our own Dr. Ami Beniaminovitz gets to the heart of the matter.

Warm Weather

When it is warm, and ambient temperatures rise, the heart has to beat faster and work harder to pump blood to the surface of your skin to assist with sweating to cool your body. If your body cannot cool itself enough, strain is put on the heart, and organs can begin to suffer damage – a potentially fatal condition known as heat stroke. Anyone can get heat stroke, but people with heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases are at greater risk. Additionally, diuretics to reduce water in the bloodstream are prescribed for many heart conditions, as are beta blockers. Each of these medications can reduce a person’s ability to cool off in the heat.

How can people (and especially older adults aged 60+) protect themselves from potential weather-related effects on their heart health?

  • Get off on the right foot. You probably sweat the most in your shoes, so choose well-ventilated shoes and look for socks that repel perspiration. Foot powders and antiperspirants can also help with sweat.
  • Dress for the heat. Wear lightweight, light-colored clothing in breathable fabrics such as cotton, or a synthetic fabric that repels sweat. Add a hat and/or sunglasses.
  • Drink up. Before you get started, apply a water-resistant sunscreen with at least SPF 15, and reapply it every two hours. Stay hydrated by drinking a few cups of water before, during and after your exercise. Avoid caffeinated or alcoholic beverages.
  • Take regular breaks. Find some shade or a cool place, stop for a few minutes, hydrate and start again.

Cold Weather

When it is cold, many people aren’t conditioned to the physical stress of vigorous outdoor activities and don’t know the potential dangers of being outdoors in cold weather. Hypothermia comes about when the body temperature has fallen below 35 degrees Celsius or about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. It occurs when your body can’t produce enough energy to keep the internal body temperature warm enough. It can kill you. Symptoms include lack of coordination, mental confusion, slowed reactions, shivering and sleepiness. Besides cold temperatures, high winds, snow, and rain also can steal body heat. The wind is especially dangerous because it removes the layer of heated air from around your body. At 30 degrees Fahrenheit in a 30-mile per hour wind, the cooling effect is equal to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Similarly, dampness causes the body to lose heat faster than it would at the same temperature in drier conditions. People with coronary heart disease often suffer angina pectoris (chest pain or discomfort) when they’re in cold weather. The classic example is the man dying when shoveling snow.

How can people (and especially older adults aged 60+) protect themselves from potential weather-related effects on their heart health?

Give yourself a break. Take frequent rest breaks during shoveling or walking outside so you don’t overstress your heart. Pay attention to how your body feels during those breaks.

Learn the heart attack warning signs and listen to your body, but remember this:

  • Even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, have it checked out (tell a doctor about your symptoms).
  • Minutes matter! Fast action can save lives — may be your own. Don’t wait to call 9-1-1
  • Don’t drink alcoholic beverages before or immediately after shoveling or when walking for long periods outside. Alcohol may increase a person’s sensation of warmth and may cause them to underestimate the extra strain their body is under in the cold.
  • Be aware of the dangers of hypothermia. To prevent hypothermia, dress in layers of warm clothing, which traps air between layers, forming insulation. Wear a hat because much of your body’s heat can be lost through your head.

 

Have further questions? Schedule a consultation with one of our cardiologists or getting a stress test to assess your overall cardiovascular fitness.

 
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