There’s nothing quite like the open road! But whether it’s a trip to visit family or to check out a national park, spending extended periods of time in a vehicle can expose seniors to a variety of less-known risks for a heart attack. Lack of green space, polluted cabin air and poor sleep are just a few of the factors that can contribute to a potentially fatal health emergency while traveling.
Verla Fortier, retired nursing professor and author of “Optimize Your Heart Rate,” lost her friend Leslie to a heart attack when the 63-year-old woman died after only the second day of a three-day road trip. Fortier spoke with SeniorsMatter about what she learned in researching the causes of her friend’s untimely passing and shared tips for caregivers to help protect seniors while on the road.
Planning your route with an older adult
“Just a couple of hours in traffic can cause death.”
Fortier pointed out that being on the road for even an hour has been linked to a three-fold increase in heart attack risk. With this in mind, a well-planned route could make a difference not just in the quality of a road trip but in preventing tragedy as well.
Fortier encourages those traveling with seniors to take the shortest route possible in order to limit their total time on the road. She also pointed out that taking a tree-lined highway can have a positive effect on heart rate variability compared to a freeway surrounded by cement. Also, do your best to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic, as sitting in gridlock has been linked to an increase in heart attacks as well.
Controlling cabin air quality
It’s tempting to feel safe and comfortable inside your own vehicle with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning blasting. However, as Fortier explained, it’s important to stay aware of pollution inside the cabin. In fact, studies have shown that fine particulate matter from traffic pollution can increase the risk of a heart attack in just a short amount of time.
Installing a clean cabin air filter before setting off is helpful, but it’s also imperative to remember that idling – especially with the air conditioning running – can dramatically increase the pollution inside the vehicle—yet another reason to plan your route carefully to avoid excessive traffic when possible.
Taking breaks in green spaces
If you do get stuck in traffic, Fortier suggests pulling off for breaks in a natural area.
“Our hearts become vulnerable outside of green spaces,” she said. “Plan green space breaks to get back into balance.”
She explained how getting back into those spaces, even just for a few minutes, can help offset some of the risks that come with pollution and restore resting heart rates. Finding green space on the road doesn’t have to be as complicated as it might sound. Don’t worry if you can’t find a forest or state park; a rest stop with grass and trees will do just fine. The important thing is that these spaces help even out stress and other negative emotions that can build up on the road.
Preventing deep vein thrombosis
Breaks aren’t just good for snacks or restroom stops. AARP recommends stopping to stretch every hundred miles or so to help prevent blood pooling and clots that lead to deep vein thrombosis. Getting up and moving around is important for those who can, but you can also use compression stockings that may help. Also, encourage your loved one to keep their legs uncrossed and pump them up and down every so often.
Keeping the senior in your care hydrated is one of the most important things you can do to prevent DVT while on the road. While this may mean more rest stops, that’s OK! Those extra breaks will make it easier to get stretching and green space breaks in.
Just be wary of alcohol, as it can lead to dehydration, and try to avoid salty snacks. Even though salt can help the body absorb water (and shouldn’t be avoided altogether unless recommended by a doctor), excessive salt can be hard on the heart. Encourage your loved one to instead snack on plenty of fruits and vegetables, which can also help them stay hydrated. AARP also recommends keeping a gallon of water for each adult in the vehicle, just in case of emergency.
Before you head out, consider a health checkup to make sure your loved one’s heart and vitals are in good shape for travel. Be sure to also review any needed medications, and plan any refill needs before you leave. Make sure you have a full supply of medications plus a few extra for backup in the event the trip ends up being longer than anticipated. If necessary, set alarms so the change in routine doesn’t lead to missed doses. Be sure to take along a full medication list, along with the names and information of prescribers.
Don’t drive late
In addition to taking the shortest, greenest route, Fortier explained that driving at night can be dangerous, as a lack of sleep has been linked to an increased risk of a heart attack. Quality of sleep matters, so don’t take a senior’s ability to fall asleep in the car as proof they’re getting enough rest. Traveling can be tough on older adults, so make sure to pull off the road and get a room at a reasonable hour.
Making good time is meaningless if a road trip ends in disaster. Prevent heart attacks, deep vein thrombosis and other health emergencies by taking the proper precautions.
Pay attention to how you feel, and take breaks as necessary, even if that means reaching your destination later than planned.
Safe travel checklist
- Take the shortest route possible.
- Take a tree-lined highway.
- Avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic.
- Install a clean cabin air filter before setting off.
- Try to avoid idling.
- Pull off for breaks in a natural area.
- Use compression stockings.
- Keep legs uncrossed.
- Stay hydrated and avoid salty snacks.
- Keep a gallon of water per person for emergencies.
- Get a health checkup before departing.
- Plan medication refills before you leave.
- Take along a medication list and names of prescribers.
- Pull off and get a room at a reasonable hour.