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Winter health tips for seniors

Senior Wellness | Jan 25, 2017

Winter can be a bit of a challenging time of year for anyone, and not just because of the snow and cold. Especially for seniors, various factors lead to an increase in certain health risks during the winter. Colds and the flu become more common and more debilitating, while icy steps and sidewalks lead to more slip-and-fall injuries.

To stay as healthy as possible through what could be a long winter, keep a few basic health tips in mind:

Dress correctly

It's obvious that winter weather means dressing warmly, but this isn't as easy as just digging the heavy coat out of the closet. Research published in the British Medical Journal adds strong evidence of the benefits of dressing in layers. The researchers studied the clothing habits of a people accustomed to very cold weather - residents of eastern Siberia - and found that wearing at least four layers of thick clothing could easily protect the body at temperatures as frigid as 4 degrees below zero.

Covering the extremities of the body is equally important. Don't forget the utility of accessories like hats, gloves and scarves. A good pair of earmuffs or a hat that covers the ears is essential. So is a scarf that can provide greater insulation for the chest, shoulders and face. Also consider switching your gloves out for a pair of mittens. While you might lose the use of your fingers, mittens are able to keep hands much warmer.

Home tips

Staying warm outside is one thing, but keeping warm indoors is equally important. Seniors are uniquely susceptible to cold compared to younger adults, since they tend to generate less body heat. Be sure walls, windows and doors are properly insulated and free of spaces where cold drafts can enter. Window insulation kits, for example, can be purchased for very little money, but can end up saving a lot in extra heating costs. Keeping the thermostat set at 68 degrees Fahrenheit should provide the best balance between comfort and energy savings.

If you get regular snowfall and have a driveway or walkway, you'll need to find a way to clear it. According to research from Harvard University, among many others, shoveling snow presents a major risk to older homeowners, especially those with heart conditions.

  • If you need to shovel, be sure to take time to stretch a little beforehand, and do your best not to over-exert yourself.
  • Remember to bend your legs rather than your back when lifting a heavy load of snow, and take frequent breaks.
  • If possible, don't hesitate to ask a younger friend or family member for help, particularly if you can persuade them with baked goods.

Sleep well

No matter our age or the time of year, we could all probably use a little more sleep. But this presents a special challenge for many older generations. As we age, deep sleep becomes less frequent and insomnia more common due to a number of changes occurring in the brain, according to research cited by The New York Times. The exact reasons and specific treatments for age-related insomnia are still poorly understood. However, there are a number of methods to try if sleep is getting more difficult.

  • Establish a night routine: It's obvious that getting a good night's rest is nearly impossible when stress and anxiety are in abundance. But there are several ways to reduce this with a good nighttime routine. Be sure to limit the use of computers or phones in the hours before bed, and try not to drink or eat too much within three hours of bedtime. Get your body into a sleep rhythm by going to bed and waking up around the same time every day.
  • Tossing and turning: If you find it's taking more than 20 minutes to fall asleep, research suggests getting out of bed for a while is more helpful than lying awake. Try reading a book in the living room until you feel tired enough to return to bed.
  • Seek treatment: While they may help in the short-term, over-the-counter sleep aids or alcohol are not safe or effective insomnia treatments over the long term, especially for seniors. Instead, ask your doctor about treatments that might include cognitive behavioral therapy or visiting a sleep specialist.