Dehydration is a common, but sadly often underestimated health issue that can affect individuals of any age. But for senior citizens, the impact can be especially severe and also complicated. With the aging process, certain physiological changes occur that can make older adults more vulnerable to the effects of dehydration, which can quickly snowball and lead to serious negative consequences for health.
Dehydration happens when the body is losing more fluids than it takes in. When this occurs, the balance of electrolytes in the body can be disrupted, or it can lead to reduced blood volume. Water and electrolytes are critical for your body to maintain proper functioning, including regulating your body temperature, circulating oxygen and nutrients through your body, eliminating waste, and maintaining proper organ function. Low blood volume can also lead to low blood pressure, and decreased delivery of oxygen and nutrients to critical organs, such as the brain, the heart, and the kidneys.
The signs of dehydration include thirst, fatigue, lightheadedness, dizziness, and dark urine or an inability to urinate. In severe or advanced cases of dehydration, symptoms can include confusion, difficult or quickened breathing, excessive sweating, loss of consciousness, low blood pressure or low body temperature, and a pale or bluish skin tone. Anyone experiencing early signs should take steps to cool off and rehydrate immediately, and if experiencing advanced symptoms, seek medical intervention immediately.
As people age, the sensations of and the response to thirst can become dulled. This can occur either due to normal age related changes in the bodily process that govern thirst and fluid intake, or due to behavioral or cognitive changes that can cause them to miss the brain’s signals to drink. In individuals who have conditions like Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia or cognitive decline, the ability to miss these cues is particularly likely.
The hormone that indicates to your brain when you’re thirsty is also the one in charge of telling your kidneys to hold onto water to prevent dehydration. As people age, the ability of the kidneys to hold on to water diminishes. There are also many common medications that older adults are prescribed that can interrupt the kidneys’ ability to retain water, such as diuretics. Older adults are also at particular risk of suffering falls due to changes in functional status and mobility. When dehydrated, the risk of falls increases due to people becoming woozy or light headed.
Certain medical conditions that commonly afflict older adults can also increase the risk of dehydration, such as diabetes, atrial fibrillation, and kidney disease. Severe dehydration can exacerbate these medical conditions, which can lead to end-organ damage, causing injury to the kidneys or the heart. Some medications can also increase this risk in older adults, for example, ibuprofen can increase the likelihood of the kidneys suffering damage from dehydration.
For most healthy people, 72 ounces, or a half gallon, of water each day should be adequate fluid intake. In some cases, this can be too much fluid intake if you have a condition like chronic heart failure or hyponatremia. There are many conditions that can affect this, so it is important to check in with your health care provider to learn the amount of fluid intake that is right for you.