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Consumers who endured winter's polar vortex and the high heating bills it produced are now preparing for a long hot summer of high cooling costs.

But beyond the increasing expense of air conditioning a home, some people – particularly seniors – can be affected in other ways.

In New York City, AARP warns older residents to take precautions to deal with the heat, noting that the last major heat wave in the city claimed 46 lives. It warns that bitterly cold winters are very often followed by sweltering summers.

Seniors at risk

Anyone with major health issues can be affected by the heat but generally, older adults stand a greater risk of heat stroke or heat exhaustion because their bodies do not easily adjust to changes in temperature.

It falls to friends, family members and neighbors to make sure older people, especially those in poor health, stay cool over the summer months. Knowing the warning signs for heat stroke may be a good place to start.

Heat stroke symptoms

Heat stroke symptoms can include feeling dizzy, faint or nauseous, and experiencing cramping in the arms or legs. Someone suffering heat stroke may have a fast or weak pulse and their body temperature will be above normal. Body temperatures above 103 degrees can lead to death or permanent brain damage and harmful stress on organs.

Heart-related conditions can also be a problem in the heat. Making these episodes more dangerous is the fact that they can be slow to develop and often the person is unaware they are happening.

AARP's recommendations to avoid heat-related health problems this summer include:

  • Stay indoors and in an air-conditioned environment as much as possible.
  • Plan strenuous outdoor activities for early or late in the day when temperatures are cooler.
  • Take frequent breaks when working outdoors.
  • Drink plenty of fluids but avoid beverages that contain alcohol, caffeine or a lot of sugar.
  • Eat more frequently but make sure meals are balanced and light.
  • Check frequently on people who are elderly, ill or may need help. If you might need help, arrange to have family, friends or neighbors check in with you at least twice a day throughout warm weather periods.
  • Salt tablets should only be taken if specified by your doctor. If you are on a salt-restrictive diet, check with a doctor before increasing salt intake.
  • If you take prescription diuretics, antihistamines, mood-altering or antispasmodic drugs, check with a doctor about the effects of sun and heat exposure.
  • Cover windows that receive morning or afternoon sun. Awnings or louvers can reduce the heat entering a house by as much as 80 percent.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat, sun block and light-colored, loose-fitting clothes when outdoors.
  • At first signs of heat illness (dizziness, nausea, headaches, muscle cramps), move to a cooler location, rest for a few minutes and slowly drink a cool beverage. Seek medical attention immediately if you do not feel better.
  • Avoid extreme temperature changes. A cool shower immediately after coming in from hot temperatures can result in hypothermia, particularly for elderly or very young people.

Managing A/C expenses

Reducing the financial costs of summer is a bit harder, but can be done. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heating and cooling costs make up 43% of the average utility bill.

The agency says U.S. consumers spend $11 billion each year to cool their homes, with air conditioning – primarily used only 3 or 4 months a year in most areas – making up 6% of annual utility costs.

To reduce air conditioning costs, make sure your unit is operating as efficiently as possible. Proper refrigerant levels promote efficiency. So does making sure the filter is cleaned or replaced when it gets dirty.

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