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February 26, 2020

Dangers of Dehydration for Older Adults

“Dehydration occurs when you use or lose more fluid than you take in, and your body doesn't have enough water and other fluids to carry out its normal functions. If you don't replace lost fluids, you will get dehydrated. Anyone may become dehydrated, but the condition is especially dangerous for young children and older adults.” (Mayo Clinic)

Risk for dehydration increases with age, with an expert explaining why in a Medical News Today article:

  • water reserves lessen as muscle mass is reduced
  • kidneys can’t retain water as well anymore
  • hormonal signals that we’ve relied upon to trigger thirst are less effective

Dehydration can lead to other medical issues, including low blood pressure. And, as another example, people who have a stroke while dehydrated are likely to have a more difficult recovery.

It’s important to realize what’s going on when you’re only mildly dehydrated, so your condition doesn’t become more severe. But how can you tell?

Signs of Dehydration

According to WebMD.com, mild to moderate signs of dehydration include thirst and/or a dry mouth. You’re probably not urinating much and, when you do, it’s a dark yellow color. While mildly dehydrated, or moderately so, skin is cool and dry and you may have a headache and be experiencing muscle cramps.

Once the dehydration becomes severe, you may also be feeling dizzy, breathing rapidly with a fast heartbeat. You may have a lack of energy or be feeling confused or irritable.

A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition explores how older people are at a higher risk of cognitive impairment when hydration levels are lower. A key result is that women, in particular, showed lower cognitive ability when they were underhydrated — with the same being true when they were overhydrated. They didn’t perform as well in the “test of attention, processing speed, and working memory.”

Other research suggests that the ability to pay attention is what’s most impacted when hydration levels aren’t ideal. This can negatively affect women when they need periods of focus.

This study does raise a question of cause and effect, though. Does the dehydration lower cognitive abilities, or did people with impairments not drink enough (or too much) liquid?

Help Lower the Risk for Dehydration

Although most people know that they should drink water to stay hydrated, they aren’t always sure how much is optimal. How many glasses of water per day is ideal?

Here are current recommendations:

  • Women drink eight glasses of water per day
  • Men drink 10 glasses of water per day

And although it makes good sense to drink water, Medical News Today notes that “Enjoyable liquids of almost any kind — including coffee, tea, soda, and even some types of alcohol — make sustaining hydration easier and more pleasant than some might assume.”

More About Dehydration in Seniors

When younger, you may have waited until you would feel thirst as a sign to drink water or other fluids. Older people, though, may not feel thirst as easily, which puts them at greater risk for dehydration. This is a common problem but, fortunately, not one that’s difficult to solve. It just means that getting the right amount of fluids may take more of a conscious effort as you age.

Dehydration in seniors can be greater with urinary tract infections (UTI). If you think you may have a UTI, see your doctor and focus on drinking water as recommended. If you take medications that have a diuretic effect, such as those prescribed for high blood pressure, ask if your recommendations for drinking water would be different than what’s typical.

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