By Wayne Lowell
As kids, most of us were at some point afraid of the dark. As we get older, we come to understand that sunshine is a greater threat than darkness. In small doses, however, sunshine plays an important part in the physical and mental well-being of seniors. Sunshine helps to convert bone-strengthening Vitamin D into an active form and it also activates chemicals in the body that ward off feelings of emotional distress and depression. Sunshine is good for us.
At the same time, it is important for seniors not to overdo their exposure to direct sunlight, especially in the coming summer months when the sun passes directly overhead and lingers longer in the sky.
Limiting exposure is essential because the sun’s ultra-violet rays are linked to a number of serious conditions. These include dehydration, sunburn, sun and heat stroke and, most seriously, skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the US with five million new cases diagnosed every year. It is estimated that half of all citizens 65 and older will get skin cancer during their lifetimes. Fortunately, most skin cancers are benign.
The elderly are particularly susceptible to skin cancer because the ill-effects of over-exposure to sunlight build up with each episode. The risk of melanoma – the most dangerous form of skin cancer — doubles for people who have five or more serious sunburns during their lifetime.
With a few sensible precautions, however, people can still reap the sun’s positive benefits while minimizing the dangers of too much exposure.
The first is sunscreen. Seniors should use a sun block that is 30 SPF or higher and apply it every few hours each day, especially if they spend time in the water. It’s important to communicate this message to seniors because studies show that just 40 percent of individuals aged 60 and above use sunscreen regularly when venturing outside. Hats and loose-fitting clothing protecting arms and legs are also a good idea.
Seniors should also try to stay out of direct sunlight between 10 AM and 4 PM, and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and lower body temperature.
In addition to these protective steps, there are a few other precautions that seniors should consider before venturing outside on sunny days.
Certain medications are known to exacerbate the severity of sunburns. Taking these medications before going outside can lead to sunburns that are redder, more painful and more widespread. Elevated risk for heatstroke has also been linked to these medications. The list of relevant drugs is long, so seniors should check with their physician to see if any of their prescriptions present an issue. In some cases, substitutions are available. In others, seniors will need to be particularly vigilant about covering up.
Seniors should also keep an eye on moles, which can act as an early warning sign of a developing skin cancer. It is recommended that individuals check for moles about once a month and have a doctor do an examination yearly. Seniors should be on the lookout for suspicious new growths, especially those that change in size or color. Other symptoms that demand immediate attention are bleeding or oozing skin, a sore that doesn’t heal, or persistent itchiness, tenderness, or pain.
New England summers are already short enough without closeting ourselves indoors for fear of the sun. With these simple steps, seniors can – and should – experience the glory of summer and reap its healthful properties.
Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, Senior Whole Health
Reprinted from the July 2017 issue of the South Shore Senior News