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Health and Wellness: Can spring sunshine harm seniors?

By Lillian Sanders - Special to the Daily Herald | Apr 27, 2022

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Spring weather is finally here, bringing some much-needed sunlight along with it. For seniors who spend most of their time indoors, this can be an excellent opportunity to enjoy quality time outside. As everyone knows, soaking up a bit of sun is good for our physical and mental health. But, can spending time out in the sunshine actually be dangerous? For seniors especially, the answer is a clear and proven “yes.”

Without taking protective measures, spending time in the sun can lead to various health concerns for seniors, who are often at risk. However, there’s no need to fear: By understanding and preparing for these conditions, seniors can feel confident about safely spending time in the sun.

Sunshine-related health concerns

In order to prepare for a sunny, springtime excursion, seniors and senior caretakers should be aware of the health risks that too much sun exposure can cause. Since some of these conditions can take time to manifest themselves, it may be easy to underestimate the importance of protecting yourself from them now. However, don’t be fooled — these conditions can pose a serious threat to seniors’ health. 

This list includes some of the most common sun-related health concerns:

  • Skin cancer: Overexposure to UV radiation, or sunlight, is the main cause of skin cancer. The cancer is caused by high levels of radiation in the cells that lead to genetic mutations. Skin cancer is usually more prevalent in individuals with fair complexions. 
  • Sunburn: As if being painful, itchy and flaky wasn’t enough, sunburns can also lead to skin cancer, cell damage and premature wrinkling and spotting.
  • Dehydration: Dehydration is another serious symptom of sun overexposure. This condition can lead to deficiencies of minerals that are important to essential body functions.
  • Weakened immune system: Believe it or not, spending too much time in the sun can actually weaken your immune system. Excessive sun exposure can prevent the immune system from detecting and attacking diseased cells efficiently. Since your body uses white blood cells to heal sunburns, this takes them away from fighting disease.

This list of health concerns shouldn’t be taken lightly. However, with proper protection in place, you can prevent yourself and your loved ones from experiencing these conditions.

Why seniors are especially at risk

Due to their likelihood of experiencing additional health complications, seniors often face a higher risk of sun-related health challenges. Here are some of the reasons why seniors are at a higher risk of sun-related health concerns:

  • Less than half of seniors use sun protection. The CDC shares that most seniors don’t use skin protection when they most need it, increasing their risk of severe sun-related health concerns.
  • Skin cancer is more common in the elderly. The CDC also indicates that old age is a common risk factor for skin cancer — http://SkinCancer.org confirms this, adding that one in five Americans develops skin cancer by age 70.
  • Seniors’ bodies have less water. Seniors’ bodies naturally have a lower volume of water. In addition, seniors also take lots of medications that may increase the risk of dehydration. Lowered mobility also makes it harder to obtain water for the elderly.
  • The elderly have weaker responses to immune challenges. Research from the National Library of Medicine indicates that seniors’ immune systems do not perform as well as those of the young.

As seniors and their caretakers learn of these risks, they will be able to make smarter decisions regarding sun-related care.

How to protect seniors from the sun

Luckily, it’s not hard to protect seniors from the harmful effects of sunlight. “When your health isn’t what it used to be, you can never be too careful,” shared Okhawere “Misi” Ahanmisi, director of nursing at Alta Camarillo Healthcare Center, a skilled nursing facility in Camarillo, California. “Keeping up with the basics, like wearing sunglasses and sunscreen and drinking water, matters. It’s a simple thing to do, but it can help you more than you think.” 

Seniors who are looking to enjoy the spring weather can stay healthy and protected from the sun by following these tips:

  • Wear sunscreen: Apply sunscreen liberally, http://AAD.org instructs that most adults should use about 1 ounce (about the amount that a shot glass can hold) to ensure adequate protection. Use SPF 30 or higher, and have someone help you apply it to hard-to-reach areas.
  • Put on a hat: If you don’t already own a nice springtime hat, now is the time to invest in one! Hats with wide brims around the entire circumference offer the best sun protection.
  • Wear the appropriate clothing: Clothing that is light colored and loose fitting and offers lots of coverage is the best choice for protecting you from the sun. Lighter colors reflect the sun’s rays, and loose fits provide better air circulation. Ultimately, better coverage equals more shielding from the sun.
  • Avoid the sun: The sun can’t hurt you if it can’t touch you. Limit outdoor activities to one or two hours or times when the sun isn’t directly overhead to avoid the risk of being burned.
  • Drink water: Even if your outdoor excursion will be short, bring lots of water with you. Staying hydrated is essential to preventing dehydration and heat stroke, so you don’t want to be caught without water in one of those situations.

While spring can be a wonderful time for seniors to enjoy the outdoors, you should always be aware of the risks that accompany spending time in the sun. Now that you know about sun-related health concerns, why they’re critical to seniors and how to prepare for them, you’ll be ready for some fun in the sun.

Lillian Sanders is a project manager at Stage Marketing, a full-service content marketing agency based in Provo, Utah.

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