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

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, said 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 said. "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."

It only takes a slight drop in a home's temperature to impact the health of an elderly adult, according to Green. 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," said 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 heartbeat and, if untreated, may result in a coma or even death. And people taking medication are at an increased risk for dehydration from hypothermia, noted 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, they should plan to wear layers of clothing, even if they don't feel cold.

In addition, people planning to dial down the heat to save money should also 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," said Green. "All of these problems are very predictable and preventable."

For those who 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.

Publication date: 01/23/2006