Elderly's ability to manage the cold may be due in part to some aging

January 24, 2007

University Park, Pa. -- Hypothermia, when the body's temperature drops significantly below normal, is especially deadly for the elderly. Older people become hypothermic despite the fact that they are more likely to live inside a home than on the street, and nearly half who become hypothermic die. By contrast, children rarely succumb to the disorder.

Younger adults also are less susceptible than the elderly, whose impaired ability to maintain core temperature during cold stress is widely documented. These contrasts have led physiology researchers to investigate whether specific characteristics of the body are responsible for our ability to deflect the cold. In a recently published study, researchers have found that certain characteristics, which change with age, affect younger and older persons differently.

The study was conducted by David W. DeGroot and W. Larry Kenney of the Intercollege Graduate Degree Program in Physiology and Noll Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University; and George Havenith, Department of Human Sciences, Loughborough University, Loughborough, UK.

The study examined the relative influence of 10 physical characteristics thought potentially to play a role in how the body's core temperature and tissue insulation react to cold. The characteristics they reviewed were age, sex, weight, body surface area, body surface area-to-mass ratio, sum of skin folds (an estimate of body fat), percent of body fat, appendicular skeletal muscle mass (ASMM), and two thyroid hormone concentrations, T3 and T4.

Forty-two young (18-30 years; 21 men, 21 women) and 46 older (65-89 years; 24 men, 22 women) individuals participated. The volunteers were nonsmokers and took no medications that could alter their cardiovascular or thermoregulatory responses to cool temperatures. Participants underwent a standardized medical screening and physical exam, and researchers measured or calculated the 10 physical characteristics noted above for each subject.

The researchers observed the following:

-- In young subjects, percent body fat and T3 hormone explained most of the variance in body temperature response to cold. Among older persons, the percent of body fat, the skeletal muscle mass, or both was responsible for similar amounts of variability in the response to cold;

-- The sum of skin folds was responsible for 67 percent (P

-- Unexplained variance of body temperature to cold was considerably less in younger participants (14-42 percent) than in older participants (59-72 percent).

These results suggest that the well known changes in body composition characteristics with aging in turn influence how the body deals with the cold as we grow older. Characteristics that are important in young people become less important with aging, and previously-insignificant characteristics rise in importance.

The study, titled "Responses to Mild Cold Stress Are Predicted by Different Individual Characteristics in Young and Older Subjects," appears in the December edition of the Journal of Applied Physiology, http://jap.physiology.org/ online.

Last Updated March 31, 2010