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January 3, 2006

A University of Michigan Health Minute update on important health issues.

Don’t touch that dial: Turning down the heat to save money could cost your health

U-M expert says lower in-home temperatures could have serious health implications for the elderly, including hypothermia, along with other indoor health risks

ANN ARBOR, MI -With home heating costs expected to soar this winter, millions of Americans will be dialing down their heat to save money.


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For most people, dialing-down just means a slightly chilly home, but for the elderly, it could bring serious health implications, including hypothermia, and could even lead to additional health risk for otherwise healthy people, says Lee A. Green, M.D., MPH, associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School.

“There’s both myth and truth to the idea that living in a colder house can cause health implications,” he says. “For most healthy adults and children, it’s not a problem. However, extreme temperatures can be harmful to babies, the elderly and even middle-aged adults with chronic diseases.”

Health implications of dialing down the heat
It only takes a slight drop in a home’s temperature to impact the health of an elderly adult. As the body ages, it produces less heat and it becomes more difficult to regulate the body’s temperature.

So even a relatively mild indoor temperature – just 60 degrees – can put elderly adults at risk for hypothermia, especially if they are not wearing warm clothing and not aware of the signs of hypothermia.

“People think of hypothermia as something that happens in the bitter cold and blizzards. It actually doesn’t have to be very cold for a person to get hypothermia,” says Green.

Hypothermia most often occurs when the body’s temperature gradually drops from 98.6 degrees to below 97.5 degrees due to increased exposure to cold. Unfortunately, the signs of hypothermia are subtle and slow, making it especially difficult for elderly adults to recognize.

Hypothermia can cause dehydration, confusion and an irregular heart beat and, if untreated, may result in a coma or even death. And people taking medication are at an increased risk for dehydration from hypothermia, notes Green.

To prevent hypothermia, Green advises that older adults – especially those with chronic diseases such as heart failure or emphysema and those taking medications – to dress appropriately for the temperature of their home. To stay warm, plan to wear layers of clothing, even if you don’t feel cold.

Alternative home heat heating
However, people planning to dial down the heat to save money should use caution when looking for alternative means to stay warm.

Woodstoves, fireplaces and kerosene heaters may seem like a quick and inexpensive way to keep a home warm in the winter, but the convenience may come with risks.

“Every winter, we see people who are injured by either a faulty woodstove or from running kerosene or catalytic heaters in a small, enclosed space without proper ventilation,” says Green. “All of these problems are very predictable and preventable.”

If you plan to use a space heater that uses any kind of fuel, Green suggests purchasing a carbon monoxide detector for the room in which the heater is being used to avoid injury.

Other cold weather dangers: Snow blowers and shoveling
People should also use caution when venturing out into the cold this winter to clear driveways and sidewalks of snow, Green says.

Snow blowers make snow removal easy, but they can do a great deal of harm if they are not used properly. It’s important, Green says, to use snow blowers on flat surfaces and not in areas where there are steep slopes where the user could lose footing or control of the machine.

And the most important thing to remember: Keep your hands and feet away from the blade of the snow blower. “If the snow blower jams, completely turn off the machine and wait until all parts have completely stopped moving. Even with the machine off, parts may still rotate, so it is best to avoid using hands to remove any objects from the machine,” says Green.

People also need to be cautious if they plan to shovel snow, especially if they have heart disease.

“Every winter, people suffer heart attacks while shoveling heavy, wet snow. It’s important to understand that if you’re not in good shape or have heart disease, you should avoid shoveling heavy snow. Don’t be too proud to hire the neighborhood kids to shovel your walk,” advises Green.

For more information, visit these web sites:
UMHS Health Topics A-Z: Hypothermia

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: Winter Weather FAQs

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: Extreme Cold: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety

National Safe Kids USA: Is Your Home Ready for the Home Heating Season?

American Heart Association: Don't Let a Snow Forecast Also Forecast Your Heart Attack

Written by Krista Hopson


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