Grandma’s fan may be doing her more harm than good

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I remember going to visit my grandma (my mom’s mom) on Sundays. We went every Sunday, like clockwork, to watch “Wonderful World of Disney” and “The Muppet Show.”

Sometimes in the summer, it was insanely hot in grandma’s house. She only had a fan in the window – no air conditioning. My mother would beg her to come stay at our house, but she would refuse.

On top of all of this, grandma only had one lung. Still, she wouldn’t budge, and it always worried my mother deeply during heat waves.

A research letter published today in JAMA shows that electric fan use by elderly people during extreme heat could in fact be harmful. While I personally find it outrageous that every elderly person in America is not furnished with air-conditioning no matter where they are, I realize that some just don’t like it, or they believe they cannot afford the electric bill.  I’m sure many can’t, sadly, but many communities do have air conditioning assistance programs for the elderly, both through the power company to pay the bill, as well as local charities that will provide refurbished air conditioners to elderly people who cannot afford to buy one.

The study admittedly was tiny – three men and six women, average age of 68.

There’s a reason why the sample was small. Wearing  only shorts (men) or shorts and a sports bra (women), the volunteers sat in a 108-degree chamber. After 30 minutes of humidity at 30 percent, the humidity went up 2 percent every five minutes until it reached 70 percent. Such conditions are not uncommon in summers in the Midwestern and Southern states, or even in the Northeast. The study was conducted by University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas.

Conventional wisdom in the medical community has been to discourage fan use at temperatures above 95 degrees, “due to theoretical risks of accelerated heat gain and dehydration,” the authors wrote. “However, empirical data to support or refute their use during heat wave conditions are sparse.”

Researchers observed the participants on randomly assigned days with and without a 16-inch fan located about three feet from them. They could not drink any fluids during the experiment. Their heart rates, core temperatures and sweat loss were monitored.

Surprisingly, when the fan was in use, core temperature and heart rate spiked. “Although differences were small, their cumulative effect may become clinically important with fan use during more prolonged heat exposure,” the researchers concluded. “Fan use elevates sweat loss in young adults. This was not observed in elderly adults, suggesting that age-related impairments in sweating capacity possibly limit the effectiveness of electric fans. Overall, this preliminary study indicates that electric fans may be detrimental for attenuating cardiovascular and thermal strain of elderly adults during heat waves.”

Grandma lived down the hill from us, in a housing project known back then as the Arsenal Courts. Originally, the projects were built to house soldiers working at the nearby Rock Island Arsenal during World War II. They were not equipped with even window units.

It was a very dangerous place back then, quite frankly, but grandma was very poor. My grandpa, Grant, died in a car accident when my mom was only 16. Grandma then spent many years in a tuberculosis sanitarium. She never really developed workplace skills as a farm wife, and when her husband died, she became sick with tuberculosis.

As if TB wasn’t bad enough, she also had several bouts of cancer. Grandma suffered many years, but was a devout Christian woman and always maintained a smile. She lived to be 81, my longest living relative next to my dad’s sister, who is 83. My dad came in third (God bless him!) at 77.

At any rate, if you know of an elderly person who just refuses to come out of the heat when it’s uncomfortable even for young people, you might want to share this study with them and see what you can do to help them get an air conditioner, if they will agree to one. A fan just isn’t enough, and is in fact harmful during heat waves, or so at least it appears in this very small (albeit interesting to me) study.

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