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High Energy Costs and the Health of Older Americans

George Rowan | 7/28/2010, 10:51 a.m.

How can your home's energy bill take a toll on your health this summer? When you choose not to turn on fans or the AC because you're worried you can't pay the bill, you may face serious health conditions, such as heat stroke or aggravation of other chronic conditions.

With record-high temperatures this summer, now is the time to understand the dangers that many older Americans face from high home energy costs. Between 1,700 and 1,800 deaths per year in the United States are attributable to heat-related conditions.
New research by AARP and the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association shows that unaffordable energy bills pose a serious and increasing threat to the health and well-being of a growing number of older people, and especially those with low- and moderate-incomes. The average low-income household spends 16 percent of its annual income on home energy costs--more than four times the national average.

For many households, high energy prices make people hesitant to use home cooling systems. As a result, there is the possibility of exposure to temperatures that are too hot in summer. Chronic health conditions may be made worse, or because of increased energy costs many older Americans struggle to pay their other bills.

So what can you do to combat some of the issues related to high home energy costs? AARP offers tips to help older Americans beat the heat throughout the summer months: First, think before you drink. Drink plenty of water, even if you don't feel thirsty, to help keep your body cool. Avoid caffeine or alcohol, which can dehydrate you.

Also, lower your daytime electric bill and avoid peak temperatures by visiting public places with air conditioning. Many communities open cooling centers to help keep you safe in extreme temperatures. Don't be afraid to use them. Go with a friend. Spend an afternoon playing cards with a friend over lemonade in a mall food court or reading a book at your local library.

Next, if you have to go out, wear loose-fitting clothing and protect yourself from the sun with a hat and sunglasses. Check your local public transportation system. Some offer free rides on particularly hot or smoggy days--helping get you where you need to go without spending a fortune on gas. And obviously, avoid going outside during the hottest times of the day.

If you can afford to pay your energy bill, the best way to avoid the heat may also be the most relaxing--just lay low at home. Put off any big chores around and, especially, outside your home. Lower your shades to keep out sunshine, and stay on lower levels as heat rises. Use your air conditioner if you have one--it can be a lifesaver. If you need assistance paying your electric bill, ask your utility company about payment options and assistance programs. And don't rely on a fan alone: just circulating hot air won't keep you cool.

Finally, talk with your doctor about any chronic medical condition or medication, as some can place you at higher risk for heat-related illness. And take time to check in on family, friends, or neighbors to make sure they are coping with the heat.

There is a government program to help pay utility bills and improve home energy efficiencies. Go to www.aarp.org/blackcommunity and type in LIHEAP to learn more about the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. While you're there you get more information about other health and financial issues for African Americans. So, staying safe as temperatures rise this summer. Be sure to make your health and the health of your loved ones a top priority.

George Rowan is a member of the AARP board of directors.