Q. I find that I get cold more easily now that I am older. Why?
A. Older adults may feel cold more easily than they used to for a few reasons. Owing in part to the natural slowing of metabolism as we age, the body becomes less efficient at generating heat and maintaining a normal body temperature. The fat layer beneath the skin can thin, providing less insulation. Chronic medical conditions like hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid), certain medications, and cardiovascular disease also make older adults more susceptible to feeling cold.
For these reasons, older adults are at risk for developing hypothermia—when body temperature drops to 95˚F or lower. It doesn’t have to be subzero outside for hypothermia to set in. An indoor temperature of 60˚F to 65˚F can lead to hypothermia in older adults. According to the National Institutes of Health, you should keep your indoor thermostat set to at least 68˚F to 70˚F.
Staying warm therefore should be a priority. Some simple precautions should keep you safe. Before stepping outside, make sure you have eaten a full meal—the energy you get from food helps you generate heat. Dress warmly in layered clothes, remove wet clothes as soon as possible, and don’t forget to wear a scarf, gloves, and a hat that completely covers your ears and head. You lose about 30 percent of your body heat through your head. Hot drinks also are a good way to warm up. Avoid alcohol—it causes you to shed heat.
Warning signs for hypothermia include sluggishness, drowsiness, slurred speech, confusion, loss of control of fine finger movements, and cold skin, especially on unexposed areas like the torso. Older people may or may not shiver. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, call 911.
This article first appeared in the December 2019 issue of UC Berkeley Health After 50.