As the summer approaches, much of the country has been suffering under blistering heat. Record temperatures, heat waves that last for weeks on end, and more have been a reality for much of the population. High temperatures are especially dangerous for older adults, and dehydration is one of the biggest factors in experiencing heat related illness.
But even during the cooler times of the year, older adults are still at risk of having a less than optimal level of fluid hydrating their bodies. Dehydration, in addition to heat illness, can cause heart problems, low blood pressure, digestive disorders, and confusion. It raises the risk of infections, especially of the kidneys and urinary tract. It makes seniors more likely to sustain a fall injury. It can even rob us of the benefits provided by exercise.
Why is it that older adults are at risk of dehydration? Scans have shown that the region of the brain called the mid-cingulate cortex, which is the part that tells our bodies that we need water, often functions poorly in older adults. Older brains may both fail to signal to us that we have the need to drink water, but can also tell us that we’ve had more than enough water when we have in fact only taken a few sips.
Other health issues can of course compound the problem as well. Diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, the after effects of a stroke, arthritis, and more, can all make it difficult for even the most well intentioned senior to stay hydrated. And many medications, such as laxatives, or the medications commonly prescribed to treat congestive heart failure and high blood pressure, will cause our bodies to excrete more fluid than we otherwise would naturally. Infections and fevers can dehydrate us as well. And incontinence can cause people to refrain from drinking fluids out of fear of having an accident. Additionally, doctors may recommend restricting fluids to patients with health conditions such as heart failure or kidney disease.
The signs of dehydration include extreme thirst, dry mouth, headache, lethargy, and hallucinations. It can be harder for seniors to recognize these symptoms because they may not feel thirsty, or they may have a condition that shares symptoms.
The amount of fluid a person should drink varies from person to person, depending on factors like their height, weight, activity level, and health conditions. But a good rule of thumb for most people is around 64 ounces per day, which is eight glasses or a half gallon. Ask your doctor for guidelines on how much water you should be drinking.
Water is the best choice for hydration, and seniors should drink before they feel parched due to their reduced sensations. Try sipping small amounts constantly throughout the day, making sure to always keep water bottles or glasses on hand. Other good sources of fluids are most non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic beverages. Milk, 100% fruit juices, soup, vegetables, and fruits. Watermelon, for example, is 90% water by weight, making a big slice of it just as hydrating as a glass of water.