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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Surviving Summer Scorchers

Can't take the heat? Many people can't, and too often they end up in the hospital.

Elderly at Risk continued...

On a hot, humid day, she's already in trouble: These conditions are enough to bring on heat stroke. When the air is humid and stagnant, sweat cools the body less efficiently because it can't evaporate. What's more, older people sweat less than younger people.

But let's say this widow takes blood pressure medication, which blunts her thirst, so she doesn't drink enough water. Then, to make matters worse, she has a beer after her morning coffee and chain-smokes. All these things dehydrate her. So she sweats even less, her body temperature soars, and by the time the Meals-on-Wheels man comes to bring her dinner, she's dead.

Walsh says a healthy young person, treated in time, has about a 90% chance of surviving severe heat stroke. Nevertheless, he says two teenage boys in his area recently died because they had gotten high on jimson weed (a.k.a. "loco weed") on a day when the temperature broke 100. They were just too stoned to realize how hot they were.

For an elderly person or someone whose health is fragile to begin with, the survival rate is less than 50%, he says. "It depends on how sick they are when they get to us."

He says El Paso has fewer cases than other parts of the country because the climate is arid. Down on the bayou, in the Everglades, and even in the Northeast, 100-plus degrees is much worse than it is in the Western desert.

Cramps, Exhaustion, Bad Mood

Heat cramps and heat exhaustion are not as scary. "These don't directly lead to heat stroke," Walsh says, but they are disabling. Both conditions are caused by loss of fluid and electrolytes -- salt, potassium, and magnesium -- through sweating. Heat exhaustion is just what it sounds like. Blood pressure drops and circulation decreases, which causes fatigue, fainting, or collapse. Heat cramps set in after strenuous exercise in hot conditions. They're painful, but not too serious.

Doctors treat heat exhaustion and cramps by replacing lost fluids and electrolytes, sometimes intravenously. The first-aid tent at a summer marathon is a good place to see how they do it. Often dozens of stricken runners will be stretched out on cots, hooked up to IV tubes or chugging Gatorade.

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