Prevention, detection, and treatment: Winter health conditions in seniors

senior broken bone

As temperatures drop, the risk of winter ailments increases for seniors. For senior living communities and home health teams, recognizing the conditions that can arise during the colder months is an important part of ensuring the physical and mental health of this vulnerable population is taken care of. In this webinar, DispatchHealth National Medical Director, Dr. Wendy Kissinger, guides those who take care of seniors into prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of the most commonly reported health concerns of the winter season.

How does the winter affect seniors’ health?

People of all ages can experience implications to their health during the winter months – cold and flu season, drier skin, less sunlight, and vitamin D. However, as our immune systems generally weaken with age, the older population is particularly more susceptible to a multitude of ailments at a greater level of risk. Common conditions and symptoms include:

  • Colds and sinus infections – Runny nose, nasal congestion, sore throat, cough, pressure in the sinuses
  • Influenza – Fever, muscle aches, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, muscle aches
  • Bronchitis – Cough, production of mucus, shortness of breath, chest pain or discomfort, fever, and chills
  • Pneumonia – Fever, shortness of breath, fatigue, cough, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. In older adults, confusion or changes in mental awareness and lower than normal body temperature

Additionally, there are five different categories of health concerns that are worth discussing in greater detail.

1. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

COPD is a long-term lung condition that affects one’s ability to breathe over time. More than 16.4 million people have been diagnosed with COPD, but there are millions more who don’t know they have it. COPD umbrellas multiple chronic inflammatory lung diseases, the most common being chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

How does winter affect one’s COPD? Well, the riskiest time of the year is defined by air quality – making seasonal weather patterns common respiratory triggers that can worsen COPD symptoms and/or cause flare-ups: extreme cold and strong winds can cause fatigue and shortness of breath, cold weather can cause blood vessels to narrow, and the body’s reaction to sudden temperature drops restricts the blood flow to keep the core body warm which limits oxygen throughout the rest of the body causing COPD complications.

COPD exacerbations occur when symptoms become worse and persist for several days, the average person with COPD experiences 3 episodes a year.

Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Labored breathing and wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Chest tightness
  • Blueness of lips or fingernail beds
  • Rapid heartbeat

Ways to prevent COPD exacerbations:

  • Cover nose and mouth with a mask, scarf, or face-covering when traveling outdoors
  • Use a humidifier to help maintain air humidity levels at a perfect 40%
  • Clear airways with controlled coughing and drinking water
  • Avoid smoke and other pollutants

DispatchHealth can intervene when exacerbations occur. We will walk you through two clinical case studies of treatment that was provided to patients experiencing a COPD exacerbation during this webinar.

2. Falls and head injuries

It’s no secret that icy conditions increase everyone’s chance of slipping and falling, but seniors are more likely to sustain injury from these incidents. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 1 in 4 older people fall each year, and 1 in 5 falls result in serious injury such as a broken bone or closed head injury. This leads to approximately 3 million older people that are treated in an emergency department each year for injuries associated with a fall.

Common conditions among seniors that can result in falls:

  • Impaired vision
  • Slowed reflexes
  • Balance problems
  • Brain shrinkage

A traumatic brain injury, or TBI, is mostly caused by falls. There are three main types of TBI, mild TBI or concussion, moderate TBI, and severe TBI. It’s important to diagnose a TBI or concussion early since unchecked and untreated can lead to post-traumatic vertigo, second impact syndrome, cumulative brain injury effects, and post-traumatic headaches.

Less than half of senior’s report to a doctor when they’ve experienced a fall, which is why it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of a TBI or concussion:

  • Cognitive symptoms: difficulty concentrating, thinking clearly, or remembering new information
  • Physical symptoms: nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headache, blurred vision, sensitivity to light or noise, balance issues, fatigue
  • Emotional symptoms: irritability, sadness, moodiness, anxiety
  • Changes to sleep patterns

For assisted or independent living communities and providers of home health, there are precautions that can be taken to help the elderly avoid falls that can result in a TBI or concussion. Here are a few we recommend:

  • Beware of wet or icy surfaces. Spread sand or salt on outdoor areas that may get wet or icy and set out warning signs or block off areas when they do.
  • Make their homes safe. Rugs, pets, shoes, and other items left on the floor can cause one to trip and fall – keeping floors clean and clear can decrease these risks.
  • Talk to their doctor or a medical professional about prescribed medications. Seniors account for 34% of prescription medication use in the United States, and medications can have many side effects, dizziness being one. Since dizziness can lead to falls, it’s important to discuss risk factors with their care team.
  • Encourage physical activity. Regular exercise is essential for maintaining muscle strength, slowing down the effects of osteoporosis, and keeping joints, ligaments, and tendons flexible and working and working properly.
  • Safe and appropriate gear. Non-slip shoes with low heels and rubber soles can prevent slipping. Assistive devices, like canes or walkers, can help with stability while on their feet.

When minor breaks, sprains, bruising, and head injuries occur that are not life or limb-threatening, DispatchHealth can provide assessment and treatment. In this webinar, we’ll share a clinical case of a 97-year-old patient seen by the DispatchHealth medical team in their assisted living community after experiencing a fall.

3. Chronic joint and muscle pain

Seniors can experience chronic joint and muscle pain from diseases like arthritis. This pain flairs up with cold, damp weather. Atmospheric pressure changes due to cold fronts can also result in swelling of joints and tissues causing pressure and pain to these areas. To help someone prepare for stiffness, aches, and pains that arise from cold weather, you can encourage them to:

  • Dress warmly to keep their core body temperature up
  • Practice stretching exercises so joints remain active
  • Boost vitamin D through diet, supplement, and sunlight

Neck and back pain are common complaints that fit in this category. 80% of people will experience a back problem at some point in time. One of the most common causes of back and neck pain among seniors is degenerative disc disease – which occurs when discs within the spine dry out inhibiting their ability to cushion the spine. They can also develop small tears in their outer wall leading to disc herniation and several other issues. Other common causes of neck and back pain in seniors include arthritis, bone spurs, fibromyalgia, muscle strain, osteoporosis, spinal compression fractures, spinal cord injuries, spinal infections, spinal stenosis, spinal tumors, and spondylolisthesis.

Knowing when to seek medical attention for a resident, patient, or client experiencing joint or muscle pain is imperative to their health and quality of life. Keep a lookout for these signs:

  • At-home remedies like pain medication and heat/cold therapy do not relieve the pain
  • Pain is severe or interferes with routine activities
  • Pain shoots down arms or legs
  • Pain worsens at night
  • Pain begins after an injury
  • Pain is accompanied by numbness, tingling, weakness, fever, headache, bladder or bowel incontinence, or unexplained weight loss

DispatchHealth can deliver in-home medical care to patients experiencing pain and order imaging for further diagnosis.

4. Heart problems

Cardiovascular problems can exacerbate when blood vessels constrict in response to the cold. According to a survey conducted by the CDC, 34% of residents in assisted living facilities have heart disease, commonly experienced as congestive heart failure (CHF). CHF can occur when the heart does not pump blood well enough to effectively support other organs of the body but does not necessarily mean that the heart is stopping or failing. Rather, it means that one of the heart’s four chambers is not functioning efficiently. Symptoms of CHF can include shortness of breath, fatigue or weakness, rapid heartbeat, and excess coughing.

To reduce heart disease rates and CHF exacerbations:

  • Implement heart-healthy meal plans low in sodium
  • Encourage regular physical activity
  • Offer mental health support to reduce stress

When cardiac problems do arise, it’s important to seek medical evaluation for the following symptoms:

  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Palpitations
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • High blood pressure
  • Leg pain or swelling
  • Generalized weakness

While chest pain is best seen in the emergency setting, DispatchHealth can assess less acute symptoms associated with CHF. For a specific example of a DispatchHealth patient seen with CHF exacerbation, check out this webinar.

5. Mental health

Many seniors experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that tends to cause mood changes during the winter. This can be in part from decreased vitamin D levels that result from less sunlight exposure. CDC reports that almost one-quarter of adults 65 and older are considered socially isolated, which can increase their risk of developing dementia, heart disease, stroke, and other serious health conditions. Health Resources & Services Administration estimates that 43% of seniors feel lonely on a regular basis, and there is a 45% increased risk of mortality in seniors who report feeling lonely.

Signs that someone might be experiencing SAD include:

  • Lost interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Less energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hopelessness
  • Frequent thoughts or comments about death

There are a variety of ideas that can help boost the mood of seniors, here are a few to consider:

  • Light therapy. If approved by a provider, sitting by a lightbox for 30-45 minutes a day can help treat SAD
  • Cheerful décor for living spaces. Add decorations, flowering indoor plants, brightly colored accents to lighten the mood
  • Encourage time reminiscing. Photo albums and storytelling can bring happy times to the forefront of a person’s memory
  • Honor traditions. Bring back the magic of celebrations whether it’s a holiday festivity or a watch party for a big game, keeping traditions alive for seniors can bring joy back into their life
  • Mental health can exacerbate existing conditions by weakening the immune system, DispatchHealth is your safety net when those conditions flare up.

How DispatchHealth can help

At DispatchHealth, we bring the power of the hospital to the comfort of home by offering affordable acute medical services throughout the country for a wide range of conditions – including many of the conditions mentioned in this article. We’re available during extended hours every day, including weekends and holidays. Our same-day services support senior living communities and home health organizations by adding a quality healthcare option at no overhead cost, ensuring a safety net for urgent health situations that are beyond the scope of care in-house, and maintaining occupancy and avoiding potential loss of resident, client or patient to a higher level of care with on-site treatment. For seniors, we help by reducing unnecessary ER visits, improving patient outcomes, and decreasing healthcare costs. To request care for a resident, client, or patient, call 855-239-1429 or visit this page.

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