Extreme heat and humidity can be dangerous for anyone, but elderly people are particularly susceptible to heat-related illnesses. Because older people do not sweat as much as younger people do in hot weather, their bodies lack the natural cooling effect that sweat produces. A new study found evidence that the lack of sweat that is common in senior citizens might negate the benefits of electric fans on extremely hot days.
The new research study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Sept. 6. Researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center analyzed the effects of an electric fan on eight senior citizens who ranged in age from 60 to 80 years old. The study participants agreed to sit in a contained area that was heated to 107 degrees with 70 percent humidity produced by a steam generator. Participants sat in the room for two-hour periods on two separate days with and without a 16-inch electric fan.
Researchers found that the electric fan did not help the study participants to keep cool while they sat in the hot and humid space. In fact, on the day that the fan was switched on, participants experienced potentially dangerous body changes. With the fan, participants’ body temperatures rose by nearly half a degree and their hearts beat 10 times more each minute. Though these kinds of changes do not pose a health risk if they are brief, they can be stressful for the heart if they are prolonged.
According to study co-author Craig Crandall, electric fans that blow onto a young person’s sweaty skin help the sweat to evaporate and naturally cool the body. When electric fans blow onto an older person’s skin that doesn’t have as much sweat, the fan may only be pushing more hot air onto the elderly person without any cooling benefits. Fans may help older people to cool down during mild heat, but during extreme heat, older people should have air conditioning.
Crandall said that he doesn’t want people to stop using electric fans when the weather is hot. However, when temperatures reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, people over the age of 60 should try to find air conditioning wherever they can, be it at a friend’s home, a movie theater or a shopping mall. During extreme heat, it’s also crucial to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.