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Are you imagining it...or is it harder to stay warm when you're older?
No, you're not. As we get older, it actually gets harder to stay warm!
There are several reasons for this:
- As the walls of the blood vessels lose elasticity, there is a decrease in circulation;
- The layer of fat under the skin that helps to conserve body heat begins to thin;
- Metabolic responses to the cold are slower;
- If you become less active, circulation is reduced, making you feel colder;
- If you lose weight, less fat storage means less insulation, causing you to feel cold;
- The areas of our body where there is less circulation — hands and feet — are especially more likely to feel cold.
The bad news is that researchers are not sure if older people are actually colder, or if they just feel colder. Feeling cold may be, at least in part, a subjective response to the environment. (By the way, for those of us who feel the cold, this information is of no use to us!)
The good news is that an increased sensitivity to the cold does not usually pose a big health risk, or require any specialized medical treatment.
So....how does this happen?
So how does our body control its temperature? Let's learn some words first:
- The body's Integumentary System includes the skin, hair, nails, and sweat glands. It has several purposes: (1) acts as a barrier to protect the body against diseases, (2) helps to retain body fluids, (3) eliminates waste products, and (4) regulates body temperature.
- The brain's hypothalamus regulates feelings of thirst and hunger, helps to control body temperature, and releases many hormones. The hypothalamus controls body temperature by triggering changes — everything from activating sweat glands to controlling muscles and body hair. Much like a thermostat regulates the temperature inside a home, the hypothalamus regulates body temperature, responding to the environment and making adjustments. Most of the time, your body is close to 37°C (98.6°F).
- Hormones are a product of living cells that circulate in the blood and produces a specific often stimulatory effect on the activity of cells usually remote from its point of origin. [^2]
- Homeostasis is the ability to keep a system at a constant condition. Our bodies are constantly adjusting to the outside temperature: whether it is cold or hot, we have to adapt.
The hypothalamus deals with a complex set of temperature-control activities. It does the following:
- balances body fluids;
- maintains salt concentrations;
- controls the release of chemicals and hormones related to temperature; and,
- works with the skin, sweat glands and blood vessels to control temperature.
For example, the middle layer of the skin stores most of the body's water. When you get warm, sweat glands are activated which brings water and salt to the surface (sweat). On the surface of the skin, the water evaporates, cooling the body and keeping the temperature in the right range.
Extreme Cold and Extreme Heat
Hypothermia occurs when we get too cold. From the Mayo Clinic website:
"Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature. Normal body temperature is around 37° C (98.6°F). Hypothermia occurs as your body temperature falls below 35° C (95°F). It is a medical emergency and needs immediate treatment.
"When body temperature drops, your body's organs and systems cannot work normally. If left untreated, it will lead to complete failure of your heart and respiratory system and eventually to death.
"Hypothermia is often caused by exposure to cold weather or immersion in cold water. Treatments are whatever methods can be used to warm the body back to a normal temperature."
When we are too hot, blood vessels supplying blood to the skin can swell which allows more warm blood to flow near the surface of the skin, where the heat can be lost to the air. For more information about heatstroke, the different types and the ways to take care of yourself see: Heat Injuries: Learn to Recognize the Signs.
How to Stay Warm
In the wintertime, it's not only colder outside, it's also colder inside unless you take steps to (of course) turn on the heat. Sometimes, a little extra clothing will help, too.
To stay warm during cool or cold weather (whether indoors or outdoors), try these:
- Wear warm clothing. Warm clothes can prevent body heat from escaping from your head, face and neck. Wool clothing retains more body heat than synthetic fabrics.
- Wear mittens instead of gloves. Mittens allow your fingers to share heat. Your fingers will stay warmer in mittens than in gloves.**Wear protective covering to prevent body heat from escaping from your head, face and neck. Cover your hands with mittens instead of gloves.
- Wear a hat. A hat prevents body heat from escaping from the top of your head.
- Avoid overexertion. Avoid activities that would cause you to sweat a lot. The combination of wet clothing and cold weather can cause you to lose body heat more quickly. If you do exercise or do outdoor activities, dress appropriately, and get into dry clothing as soon as possible.
- Dress in layers. Wear loosefitting, layered, lightweight clothing. Outer clothing made of tightly woven, water-repellent material is best for wind protection. Wool, silk or polypropylene inner layers hold body heat better than cotton does.
- Stay dry. Remove wet clothing as soon as possible. It's important to keep your hands and feet dry, so mittens and boots become very important.
- Move...Exercise. If your feet and hands are cold, a little walk or some exercise will get the circulation going again and warm you up.
If you have other ideas of how to stay warm in winter, write to me.
Other articles that might interest you:
- Making Energy: How our Bodies Work
- Predictors of Aging: Biological, Psychological, Sociological
- To stay cool during hot weather, see this article titled Heat Injuries: Learn to Recognize the Signs.
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.
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