Heat and Air Quality Safety for Older Adults

Summer temperatures and high humidity are back in New York City; however, these annual hazards are now accompanied by a new concern – poor air quality due to ongoing Canadian wildfires.

While these hazards can present a significant threat to individuals at any age, older adults are particularly vulnerable to summer weather conditions.  Read on to learn how to protect yourself and your loved ones, as well as why older adults should be particularly cautious. Summer in New York City

Why is the summer more hazardous for older adults?

Natural changes in our bodies, medical treatments, and social factors associated with older adults can make the summer season particularly hazardous for those above 65.

Changes in our body

As we age, a part of our brains called the hypothalamus, which keeps the body’s internal functions in balance, becomes less active. As a result, older adults receive fewer signals that they are thirsty.

Additionally, some older adults who experience urinary incontinence may actively limit their fluid intake to lower their risk of an accident, greatly increasing the risk of dehydration.

Finally, older adults with chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease (i.e. congestive heart failure, history of prior heart attack) or lung disease (i.e. asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,) can experience health complications due to poor air quality.  While air quality is generally poorer in the summer due to higher levels of ozone, this year’s wildfires have put a larger amount of large particulate matter in the air, which can seep deeper into an individual’s lungs and potentially enter the bloodstream.  More details on this hazard can be found in our latest blog on summer air quality.


Some prescription medications can change the fluid balance in an older adult, resulting in more water being lost through the kidneys as urine. These medications include cardiovascular, diuretic, hypertension, and Parkinson’s disease drugs.

Older adults taking any prescription medication should clarify with their doctor or pharmacist if their medication may impact fluid retention or increase the risk of dehydration.

Social Factors

Social isolation among older adults remains a significant hazard, and can make individuals much more vulnerable to air quality and heat-related hazards. This is because these hazards tend to take effect over time, and a person experiencing the effects of these hazards may not notice the decline in their own condition, despite being obvious to an outside observer.

Additionally, financial concerns may exacerbate summer heat and air quality hazards by lowering an individual’s willingness to run an air conditioner or air purifier, particularly as energy prices increase.

Managing Summer Hazards

While summer weather presents significant health hazards, there are several ways to manage these risks.


The best way to remain safe during heat waves and periods of poor air quality is to have well-functioning air conditioner and air purifier units in your home before an emergency.

During periods of high heat, keeping your windows closed and running air conditioners at 78o F will strike the best balance between maintaining a safe temperature and not overtaxing your local energy grid. Closing window blinds to lower the amount of sunlight entering and heating your home can also assist in maintaining a safe temperature.

If your air conditioner suddenly stops working or fails to maintain a safe temperature, the NYC Cooling Center program allows individuals to stay in public, air conditioned buildings during heat emergencies.  Find your local cooling center here.

When dealing with periods of poor air quality, having an air purifier rated for the square footage of your home can help lower the amount of particulate matter you will inhale.  When buying a purifier, most experts recommend a minimum MERV 13-rated purifier.  Be sure to purchase additional filters when purchasing your unit, and make note of how frequently they must be replaced.

If your air purifier is not rated for the full footprint of your home, restricting activities to a single room where the purifier is located can further increase your safety.


Prior knowledge of a hazardous condition can make it easier to plan out the upcoming days to reduce your exposure.  Monitoring local weather forecasts can provide ample warning, but the best way to be passively alerted to hazards is by signing up for Notify NYC, the city’s early warning system.

During a heatwave

When a heatwave occurs, consider taking the following precautions:

  • Temperatures reach their peak between 11 am and 4 pm during the summer months. If possible, try to avoid outdoor activities and errands during this time.
  • Air conditioning is the best way to stay cool during a heatwave, but be conscious of how much electricity you are using. Try to set your air conditioner to 78 degrees to avoid causing power outages.
  • Dress for the weather by wearing loose, light clothing that breathes, as well as a hat that protects your face and neck from the sun.
  • Drink additional water throughout the day and avoid beverages like soda, alcohol, coffee, or tea, which can feel refreshing, but actually contribute to dehydration.

In case of emergency

When a person begins to overheat, they will often display symptoms of heat exhaustion.  These symptoms include: dizziness or fainting, nausea, sweating, rapid weak pulse, fatigue, headache, cramps and cool, moist, pale skin.

If someone is experiencing these symptoms, especially an older adult or young child, they should be moved to an air-conditioned space immediately and hydrated with cold water while you call for medical assistance. Spraying cool water on the person, or offering them cool, wet sponges to place on the back of their neck, head and armpits can also help lower the person’s temperature while you wait for help to arrive.

During periods of poor air quality, be on the lookout for shortness of breath, wheezing, additional phlegm, and coughing, which are all signs of respiratory distress.  Additionally, be on guard for feelings of shortness of breath that prevent you from performing normal activities around the home.

If you believe you are experiencing these symptoms, reduce physical activity immediately, sit down, and call for medical assistance.

There’s nothing quite like summer in the city, and the team at SelectCare hopes that this early reminder helps our community enjoy the season safely.  With nearly 40 years of experience helping New Yorkers live happily and healthily in their long-time homes, our staff is here to help your family no matter what challenges you face.

To learn more about how we help, call SelectCare or request a free in-home health care guide today.