Spending time in the sun is a part of the daily routine for many older adults, whether it is through walks around the neighborhood or gardening in the yard. Therefore, it is also important to know how the sun can affect our lives. Understanding the positive and negative health benefits of sun exposure will help us enjoy our time in the sun in the safest way possible.
Positive Health Consequences
Sun exposure has been linked to stronger bones, a healthier immune system, and overall good health. For example, sun exposure supports the production of Vitamin D, a critical nutrient that supports calcium absorption, which helps keep our bones strong (Repinski, 2018). Research also suggests that some UV ray exposure can help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of some chronic diseases (Repinski, 2018). There are three types of ultraviolet, or UV rays that come from the sun. UVA rays are the most common form of sun exposure. UVB rays are more intense but less common. UVC rays are the most harmful to us, but the Earth’s ozone layer protects us from these rays (Effects of Sun Exposure, 2017).
Additionally, better sleep is cited as a benefit as sunlight helps regulate melatonin levels in the body. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate sleep cycles – darkness increases melatonin production and light decreases it, letting your body know when to sleep and when to be awake. Finally, serotonin, a natural mood stabilizer produced by the body, increases in response to sunlight. Serotonin is shown to reduce depression and anxiety and increase happiness (Hendrich, 2018). While there are health benefits of spending time in the sun, it is important to be safe. The benefits of sun exposure do not outweigh the potential negative consequences of UV ray exposure (Repinski, 2018).
Negative Health Consequences
While spending time in the sun does have health benefits, there are also some negative health effects to be aware of. One of these is skin cancer, which occurs more frequently in older adults (United States Cancer Statistics, 2020). This is due to the fact that sun damage is cumulative, or increases with more and more sun exposure (Skin Cancer Facts & Statistics, n.d.). About 23% of lifetime sun exposure occurs by the age of 18, so practicing sun safety habits every day will help protect against sun damage (Skin Cancer Facts & Statistics, n.d.). It is easy to underestimate the amount of time you spend outside, and you may disregard applying sunscreen or wearing a hat. Whether you are gardening in your back yard, golfing with friends, or volunteering at an Obon festival, all of this time under the sun adds to your lifetime sun exposure. Here are some heat-related illnesses and other things to keep in mind while out in the sun.
- Dehydration (Hot Weather Safety Tips, n.d.)
- Dehydration is the loss of water from the body and can become serious if not treated.
- Feeling thirsty is a sign that your body is already mildly dehydrated (Heat, Hydration, and Sun Safety, 2019).
- Some symptoms of dehydration include: weakness, headache, muscle cramps, dizziness, confusion, and passing out (Hot Weather Safety Tips, n.d.).
- If you are dehydrated, drink water. You can also drink sports drinks that contain electrolytes. Electrolytes are salts and other minerals that play a role in regulating heartbeat and are important for hydration. Electrolytes are often lost through dehydration and can be replaced by drinking more fluids (Hot Weather Safety Tips, n.d.).
- If you do not feel better after drinking fluids, call 911. If you do feel better but have medical conditions such as heart disease, contact your doctor to see if an appointment is necessary (Hot Weather Safety Tips, n.d.).
- Heat Exhaustion
- Heat exhaustion is caused by dehydration and too much heat. It is a serious health problem that needs treatment (Hot Weather Safety Tips, n.d.).
- Symptoms of heat exhaustion include: heavy sweating, weakness, fainting, fatigue, cramps, cold or clammy skin, thirsty feeling, a fast or weak pulse, and nausea or vomiting (Heat, Hydration, and Sun Safety, 2019).
- In the case of heat exhaustion, move to a cooler or shady place and drink cold fluids. If you do not feel better after cooling down and drinking fluids, call 911. If untreated, heat exhaustion can develop into heat stroke (Hot Weather Safety Tips, n.d.).
- Heat Stroke
- Heat stroke is a serious health problem and comes with a dangerous increase in body temperature.
- Heat stroke can develop gradually over a few days of sun and heat exposure and can be deadly if not treated (Hot Weather Safety Tips, n.d.).
- Symptoms of heat stroke are confusion, dizziness, headache, trouble breathing, fast heartbeat, nausea, vomiting, hot or flushed skin, and unconsciousness (Heat, Hydration, and Sun Safety, 2019).
- If you are experiencing heath stroke, call 911. While waiting for emergency services, move to a cooler location or shade. Take off any heavy clothing and try to cool down. Putting cold water on your wrists, ankles, and neck can lower your body temperature (Hot Weather Safety Tips, n.d.).
- For any of these heat-related illnesses, make sure to tell your doctor about each occurrence so they can keep track of it.
- Skin Cancer
- According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, skin cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in the skin (Skin Cancer 101, n.d.). The two main causes of skin cancer are UV rays from the sun or even from UV ray tanning machines.
- One in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70 (Skin Cancer 101, n.d.). Skin cancer represents about 2-4% of all cancers in Asians (Skin Cancer Facts & Statistics, n.d.). Luckily, if skin cancer is found early, a dermatologist can likely remove it completely with minimal scarring. (Skin Cancer 101, n.d.).
- UV rays are invisible to the eye and they can go through your skin. When there is too much sun exposure, UV rays can reach the inner layers of skin and a sunburn occurs. Even on cloudy or overcast days, UV rays can still cause skin damage.
- There are three common forms of skin cancer. Basal cell carcinoma (BBC) is the most common form of skin cancer. This type of cancer develops on sun-exposed areas such as the face, ears, neck, head, shoulders, and back.
- BCCs are caused by intense exposure and overall long-term exposure to UV rays. Additionally, BBCs can be damaging to the skin around it if not detected early (Skin Cancer 101, n.d.).
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common form of skin cancer. SCCs are found in areas such as the ears, face, neck and hands.
- Collective exposure to UV rays, including those from tanning beds cause the majority of SCCs. SCCs can grow and spread rapidly without early detection or treatment (Skin Cancer 101, n.d.).
- The third most common form of skin cancer is melanoma. These are caused by intense sun exposure that leads to sunburns. Melanomas can look similar to moles and can sometimes develop from them.
- Melanomas can appear anywhere on the body and are the most dangerous form of skin cancer (Skin Cancer 101, n.d.).
- While early detection is important for skin cancer treatment, there are various precautions you can take to protect yourself from skin cancer and other health related illnesses.
- Taking medications such as diuretics, sedatives, and certain heart and high blood pressure medications can make it harder for your body to cool itself.
- Some prescription drugs may also cause you to overheat more easily (Hot Weather Safety Tips, n.d.).
- In addition, some medications can make you more sensitive to the sun. These include antibiotics, cancer drugs, diabetes medications, and some pain relievers (10 Types of Medications, 2017).
- It is important to consult with your doctor and/or pharmacists about any drugs that may increase your sensitivity to heat or sunlight.
While the risks of sun exposure and heat-related illnesses are prevalent, that should not stop you from enjoying the outdoors. It is best to practice good sun protection habits while enjoying your gardening, golfing, exercise, or other outdoor activities. There are various precautions you can take to lower your risk for skin cancer and other heat-related illnesses.
- Protective Clothing (Sun-Protective Clothing, n.d.)
- To increase protection from UV rays, wear protective clothing including a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses to protect your eyes.
- Your clothing is one of the most effective forms of protection since it absorbs or blocks UV rays. Dark and bright colored clothing absorb UV rays, so they do not reach your skin. Keep in mind that darker clothing offers more protection from UV rays, but may make you warmer. Be sure to follow the other protective measure to ensure the most sun safety.
- Materials such as denim offer more protection compared to more sheer materials. Covering more of your skin, using long pants and long-sleeve shirts also offers more protection from UV rays.
- Stay Hydrated (Hot Weather Safety Tips, n.d.)
- Regularly drink water or sports drinks that contain electrolytes.
- Try to avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks as they can hinder water retention and lead to further dehydration.
- Sunscreen (Heat, Hydration, and Sun Safety, 2019)
- It is also important to apply broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays.
- Choose a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and apply it 30 minutes before going outside. Make sure to apply sunscreen on often-overlooked areas such as the ears and hairline.
- If you’re going to be outside for a prolonged period of time, reapply sunscreen every two hours as well as after swimming or sweating. Also, try to take breaks by going inside or staying in the shade (Effects of Sun Exposure, 2017).
- Routine Inspections (Urban, 2019)
- AARP found that there is a rise in serious cases of skin cancer among older adults. As a result, AARP suggests that older adults should routinely check their skin for any changes.
- Routine inspections performed by yourself as well as a dermatologist can help detect skin cancer earlier, leading to a higher chance of successful treatment.
- If you are doing an at-home or self-inspection, monitor your skin for any changes or parts that are not healing properly. You should look for growths or moles that increase in size as well as spots or sores that itch or hurt and do not heal within three weeks.
- If you do find any of these, or are unsure of what you have observed, consult a dermatologist right away (Self-Exams Save Lives, n.d.). You can also have a loved one or doctor closely examine hard to see places on the skin, such as the back.
- In the case that you do not want to do a self-examination, ask your doctor to do one, or get referred to a dermatologist. It is never too late to implement protective strategies and take an active stance in your health and wellness.
Call to Action
There are a number of ways to protect yourself outside while maximizing the benefits of sunlight and minimizing any harmful risks. Try to plan when you will be going outside. The sun’s rays are the strongest between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. (Effects of Sun Exposure, 2017). If you do go outside during this time frame, make sure to apply and reapply sunscreen. Staying hydrated will help prevent any heat-related illnesses. In any cases of heat-related illness, remember to tell your doctor about them. In addition, ask your doctor about how to self-examine your skin for signs of skin cancer, or ask them to refer you to a dermatologist for more information (How to do a Skin Self-Exam, n.d.). In order to enjoy the sun’s health benefits, we first need to know how to protect ourselves from its potentially harmful qualities.
Here are some additional resources on Sun Safety:
Sun Safety Resources
- American Skin Association http://www.americanskin.org/resource/safety.php
- Environmental Protection Agency https://www.epa.gov/sunsafety
- Melanoma Research Foundation https://melanoma.org/patients-caregivers/newly-diagnosed/
Effects of Sun Exposure. (2017). Retrieved from https://familydoctor.org/effects-early-sun-exposure/
Heat, Hydration and Sun Safety. (2019). Retrieved from https://agesafeamerica.com/heat-hydration-and-sun-safety/
Hendrich, Silas. (2018). Retrieved from https://chhs.source.colostate.edu/3-reasons-to-go-outside-and-enjoy-the-sun-this-summer/
Hot Weather Safety Tips for Older Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.healthinaging.org/tools-and-tips/hot-weather-safety-tips-older-adults
How to do a Skin Self-Exam. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.cancer.org/healthy/be-safe-in-sun/skin-exams.html
Repinski, Karyn. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/health-wellness/sun-exposure-health-benefits/
Self-Exams Save Lives. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.skincancer.org/early-detection/self-exams/
Skin Cancer 101. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/
Skin Cancer Facts & Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts/
Sun-Protective Clothing. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-prevention/sun-protection/sun-protective-clothing/
United States Cancer Statistics: Data Visualizations. (2020). Retrieved from https://gis.cdc.gov/Cancer/USCS/DataViz.html
Urban, Peter. (2019). Skin Cancer Rates Rise for Older Adults. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2019/skin-cancer-rates-rise-for-older-people.html
10 Types of Medications That Should Keep You in the Shade This Summer. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/skin-and-hair/10-types-of-medications