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No foul play in Mount Rainer hiker death: Hypothermia threat to the elderly

The elderly are at risk for hypothermia symptoms even if they are not outdoors in winter conditions.
The elderly are at risk for hypothermia symptoms even if they are not outdoors in winter conditions.
Courtesy of Constancekmorrisphotography.com

When 70-year-old Karen Sykes hiked up Mount Rainer with her boyfriend, she was hiking to her death, but she did not know it. The elderly outdoors writer and her companion parted ways when she chose to forge on in snowy terrain at an approximate 5,000-foot altitude and he chose to turn back and eat his lunch.

They planned to meet up again later, but she never showed, eventually succumbing to hypothermia, according to a June 24 report from NBC News, which cites Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office investigator Karen Barr.

Sykes' daughter Annette Shirey told NBC this weekend that her mother "always said that if her life was going to end she would want it to end in the mountains."

The Mayo Clinic defines hypothermia as "a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat." The medical organization says that when hypothermia occurs it impacts your heart, nervous system and other organs, including the brain. And thus they don't work normally in this crisis mode.

Karen Sykes was allegedly enduring 40-degree temperatures while hiking in Mount Rainer National Park. So once her elderly body began to lose heat, and she could not counteract the loss, she would have begun experiencing these initial hypothermia symptoms: shivering, dizziness, trouble speaking, slight confusion, lack of coordination and fatigue, among others.

As the more moderate and severe conditions set in, the writer would have stopped shivering, as that symptom goes away when more severe hypothermia sets in, but she would have begun to experience slurred speech or mumbling, a lack of concern about her condition, more clumsiness or lack of coordination, poor decision-making (like trying to remove her clothes, possibly), and a progressive loss of consciousness.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) cautions the elderly in particular about this cold weather danger, stating that certain illnesses, like diabetes, as well as certain medications, including over-the-counter cold medicines, can diminish this age groups ability to deal with their body's response to cold temperatures. And it doesn't have to be cold weather in the outdoors that can pose a risk, as a home that is not well heated on the inside can be a danger for an elderly person, too.

If you are elderly, ask your physician if any of your medications could make you more susceptible to hypothermia. And to prevent this condition when you plan to be outdoors, be sure to wear warm and dry clothing and shoes, especially a hat, scarf and gloves, as the body loses the most heat through the head, hands and feet. And wear loose layers of clothing, as this will allow warm air to get trapped between the layers. Tight clothing will prevent warm air from circulating next to the body, so you don't want to wear tight clothing.