Days are averaging 105+ degrees for the last couple of months, and the heat does not seem to be going down any time soon. We are all familiar with the physical symptoms that extreme heat can cause: heat stroke, fatigue, dizziness, muscle cramps, etc. Since May, I have noticed an influx of patients being admitted due to altered mental status, hypernatremia, and increased risk of dehydration…with more than half of them being older adults or people who are homeless.
I have also noticed that I am exhausted by the end of the day. Especially on the days I hit traffic on my way home and then have to walk from the parking lot up to my 3rd floor apartment. Lately, I get home and go straight to the shower, followed by a nice nap. 💤
The heat really slows me down and I have not had energy to do anything OT-related (research, brainstorming ideas, blogging, etc.) after getting home from work. I can only imagine how my dad feels after working all day outside in the sun doing construction.
So why does heat decrease cognitive performance? When the hypothalamus (part of the brain that monitors temperature) receives the signal that our body temperature is rising, the brain sends signals to different chemicals in our bodies to work on regulating our body temperature. Glucose is not only our source of energy, it is also important for temperature regulation. When glucose gets depleted, it leads to less energy for brain function. Below is a diagram that I found online that easily explains the cooling and warming mechanisms of the hypothalamus:
Impact on Cognitive Performance by Increased Temperatures:
- Decreased attention and focus
- Slower reaction times
- Decreased working memory
- Difficulty with completing complex tasks – The is due to the fact that the brain is in thermoregulation mode and trying to achieve homeostasis rather than trying to sustain the brain capacity needed to complete complex tasks
- Balance deficits
- Vision difficulties
- Difficulty executing activities that involve psychomotor skills:
- driving a car (ever get drowsy while driving a car in the summer?)
- hand-eye coordination activities: catching a ball, hitting a ball
- playing a musical instrument
- …and more.
As an OT, it’s important to take into consideration any cognitive deficits patients present. This is because cognitive deficits can lead to impaired safety awareness and processing skills impacting their independence with daily activities. By assessing and addressing patients’ cognitive functioning, we are able to provide strategies for appropriate care by staff during their stay and for discharge planning with the necessary resources and recommendations.
Tips for Dealing with Warm Temperatures
- Drink plenty of water – I usually keep water bottles in the therapy gym for patients that have an increased risk of dehydration to keep them hydrated during the session
- Avoid being outside too long during the hottest times of the day (typically 1-3pm)
- For those that work outside here are some websites to stay safe while working outdoors:
- Eat more fruit
- Pace yourself – energy conservation via frequent breaks and breaking down tasks!
- Use a damp cloth to cool yourself down. I found this on Amazon I’m considering for my dad:
Stay safe and cool this summer! It’s been too warm for my liking in Arizona, but they keep telling me cooler months are coming!
To read more about this topics, visit the following links: