In theory, everyone welcomes spring. We love the warmer days and budding greenery. But spring is a time of extreme weather change that can cause health issues, especially among the elderly.
First, this time of year often is marked by swings from chilly, to mild, to back to freezing temperatures, and cold weather can be problematic for older people. Arthritic problems worsen, and there is a much higher injury rate from falling.
Serious conditions, such as heart attacks and pneumonia, peak during the winter. This past winter, we had a flu epidemic that hit the elderly particularly hard. The immediate immune response is delayed in an older person, causing a higher likelihood for pneumonia to develop after the flu.
So, what can older adults do to stave off the effects of winter’s last gasp? One answer (tongue in cheek), according to some folks, is move to Florida.
Changes in weather patterns often are accompanied by shifts in barometric pressure, the force exerted on a surface by the weight of air above that surface.
Some people who claim they can feel weather changes in their bones are correct. Barometric pressure often drops before bad weather sets in. This lower pressure pushes less against the body, causing tissues to expand. This can put more pressure on joints, causing them to flare up.
Once spring truly arrives, a new annoyance occurs: allergies. The elderly may not cope as well with seasonal allergies as younger people. Temperature and humidity play a major role in seasonal allergies, asthma exacerbation and other airway diseases. With weaker immune systems, seniors are more prone.
As the weather changes, most doctors advise older adults to keep an extra layer of clothing, such as a sweater or waterproof jacket, available. In addition, one always should have a list of their medications and allergies on them.
Avoid being outside with weather extremes. Stay hydrated, eat a well-balanced diet, including fruits and vegetables, exercise moderately and stay up-to-date on immunizations, such as influenza and pneumonia vaccines.
Seniors with Alzheimer’s disease also are affected by fluctuations in their regular routines, and they can experience issues when seasons change. This is a common concern during the onset of winter, which can greatly exacerbate sundowning, an increase in restlessness and confusion caused by decreased sunlight that upsets the body’s circadian rhythm.
Then there is valley fever, a fungal infection caused by fungus cocci that gets into the body through inhalation. The fungus is endemic to the hot, dry soils of the Southwest. According to studies, 97% of all U.S. cases of Valley Fever are reported in Arizona and California. The fungi are in the soil and are picked up by strong winds.
Valley fever symptoms include fever, cough, chest pain, cold, rashes, night sweats and weakness or fatigue.
This past fall and winter, many area farmers let their fields go fallow due to limited water availability. In addition, we also experienced high winds that picked up a dust and fungus mix that could affect you, whether you were in the backyard gardening, playing golf or doing any other outdoor activities.
Some people who get valley fever see the infection go away in a few weeks. For seniors, the condition can last for months and require anti-fungal medication that has side effects. At least it can’t be spread from person to person.
Bottom line, don’t delay in seeking medical advice if you or your loved ones develop any of these medical issues. Stay safe and be vigilant as to any arising symptoms.
Al Brandenburg is a member of Maricopa Community Advocates.