With winter's coldest days and worst storms, January and February are the peak season for deaths from hypothermia. The toll from this old yet often underappreciated health threat could be especially high in 2006, unless high-risk people and their families, friends, and neighbors get prepared.
Hypothermia is low body temperature, when the innermost parts of the body accidentally drop below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
A few deaths involve homeless people and healthy younger individuals such as mountain climbers, hunters, and skiers who are stranded in remote areas.
Most, however, involve older people living in their own homes or institutions with chilly room temperatures.
Deaths from hypothermia track energy prices. When prices are high - as they are right now - death rates are high. It makes sense. Many older people live on fixed incomes, with little slack to pay higher heating bills. When prices rise, older people may ratchet down the thermostat.
Keeping room temperatures in the low 60s, or even high 50s, may actually be healthy for younger people. Chilly temperatures don't make people get sick with colds. In fact, viruses that cause the common cold and influenza have a harder time spreading in cool temperatures.
It's a different story for older people, especially individuals in their 80s and 90s.A few days in room temperatures below 65 degrees F. can result in dangerous drops in body temperature.
Older people face a greater risk from the cold because their bodies produce less heat. They may have less insulating fat in their legs and arms. Many take medications or have chronic diseases that reduce the body's tolerance for the cold. Alzheimer's' disease and other memory problems can reduce their awareness of the cold.
The National Institute on Aging estimates that almost 3 million people in the United States have an unusually high risk of hypothermia.
Official death figures may underestimate hypothermia's seriousness.
The statistics show less than 1,000 annual deaths. However, Dr. Richard Besdine of Harvard Medical School believes hypothermia may kill nearly 25,000 people each year.
Experts say that some deaths attributed to heart attacks, strokes, and other diseases common in the elderly actually are hypothermia.
Almost all of those deaths could be prevented.
State and federal officials urge those who can't afford their heating bills to seek financial help. In Ohio, residents can try contacting 1-800-282-0880 at the state's Department of Development. In Michigan, contact the Family Indepence Agency at 1-800-292-5650.
Warm surroundings, obviously, top the list of safety measures. Other steps include wearing warm clothing. Start with thermal underwear and add layers. Loose-fitting garments trap air between each layer for added insulation. Wearing a hat during the day and at bedtime can prevent much of the 30 percent of body heat lost from the head.
Family, friends, and neighbors can play an important role by checking often on older people who live alone.
People with hypothermia may not complain of being cold. Instead, watch for symptoms such as unusual confusion, irritability, sleepiness, or clumsiness. Their skin may feel cold, especially on the back and stomach. Take their temperature, if possible, watching for a low reading.
If you suspect hypothermia, get emergency medical help. Keep the person warm until it arrives.