Little Known Winter Dangers for Elders

The holidays will soon be over, and now that we have had the first major snowfall this season, “old man winter” is finally upon us!  In addition to falls and hypothermia, winter’s frigid weather brings other hazards for the elderly.  Seasonal Affective Disorder and Vitamin D deficiency can be hazardous to a senior’s health.  The good news is, they are both easily treatable.


Feeling a bit glum may seem like an ordinary reaction to the fading glow of the holidays.  But, when that feeling of sadness persists for more than a week or two, it might not be just the lack of festive lights and and carols getting your elderly loved one down.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that cyles with the seasons.  It can occur during any time of the year, but it typically hits most people in the winter.

As the weather gradually gets colder and the days shorter, people affected by SAD will begin to feel the symptoms of depression.  These can include a loss of energy, an increased appetite and an enhanced feeling of lethargy and tiredness.

According to the National Institutes of Health, SAD is more likely to strike women and people who live in northern areas where the sun is not as strong or constant.

The main difference between SAD and general depression is that SAD only strikes during certain times of the year.  The hormonal changes that lead to depressive symptoms in people with SAD are usually caused by a decline in the amount of daylight during the winter and fall. These effects can be compounded if a person primarily stays indoors and doesn’t have the opportunity to venture out into the sun often.


Like other forms of depression, SAD can be treated with antidepressant medications, which are most effective if started prior to the onset of symptoms each year.

Another form of treatment designed to alleviate the symptoms of SAD is light therapy.  Light therapy utilizes a piece of equipment called a ‘light box’–a fluorescent lamp that gives off light similar to natural sunlight. A good, quality light box generally costs about $200 and most come with a filter that blocks UV rays so that light does not do damage to a person’s eyes or skin.

A more natural alternative to light therapy is daily exposure to sunlight.  If time and weather conditions permit, it would be helpful for a person with SAD to go outside for a few minutes during daylight hours.


Vitamin D is a vital nutrient that has been linked to bone health, cancer prevention, incontinence prevention, and diabetes prevention.  A person can obtain Vitamin D by eating certain foods (salmon, beef, egg yolks, fortified cereals and juices), brief sun exposure, and by taking dietary supplements.

While frigid weather is likely to have little effect on the availability of the right foods and supplements, the sun is weaker and out for shorter periods of time in the winter, making it difficult for people to get enough exposure to produce Vitamin D.

Lacking Vitamin D is bad for a person’s health at any age, but can be particularly dangerous for the elderly.  Older people who don’t get enough Vitamin D have an increased risk for developing osteoporosis–a dangerous decrease in bone density that can contribute to broken bones.

The National Institutes of Health has identified elderly people as an at-risk group for Vitamin D deficiency.  Older people are less efficient at using sunlight to produce Vitamin D, and are more likely to be housebound and unable to be exposed to enough sunlight to be beneficial.  Also, certain medications taken by older people can inhibit their natural ability to produce Vitamin D.


Combating vitamin D deficiency in the elderly can be tricky.  Physicians do not always like to prescribe extra time in the sun as the elderly are more prone to developing skin cancer, and it can be difficult to determine how much supplementation to suggest.

Making sure a senior is eating foods with Vitamin D is the safest way to help reduce or prevent a deficit.  Certain varieties of milk, yogurt and juice all contain extra doses of the vitamin, but not so much as to pose a hazard to an elderly person’s health.

Always consult with your elderly loved one’s doctor to come up with a proper plan of attack if you are considering a supplementation, light therapy, or extra time in the sun.  It can’t hurt to “Think Spring” either!



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