SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Aging and dehydration

Maureen Wendt

A new study found that 31% of older adults are dehydrated. Sufficient fluid consumption among older adults is associated with fewer falls, less constipation, less laxative use, improved rehabilitation in orthopedic patients, and a reduction in bladder cancer (among men). Dehydration is partly due to natural aging.

Your body is a temple for water. In fact, most of your body is made up of water. Newborns have the most water at 78 percent of total body mass, dropping to 65 percent by age 1. On average, bodies of adult men are 60 percent water. Women contain about 55 percent.

When you don't get enough water, dehydration can occur and can be serious. There are several factors that make seniors more vulnerable to dehydration:

— As we get older, the kidneys do not function as well and this affects the way the body regulates fluids.

— Medications like blood pressure pills, which are commonly taken by elderly people, can also result in dehydration.

— For some, the thirst response mechanism can be impaired so they don't always recognize their need to drink.

— A decline in cognitive function is another reason why some seniors get dehydrated.

— Individuals with a condition that makes using the bathroom painful may avoid drinking liquids; an incontinence problem may also cause them to limit fluid intake.

— Physical problems like arthritis and pain may interfere with ability to drink.

— Another risk factor for dehydration in the summer is that some seniors do not have an ability to tell if their body temperature is rising.

Keeping hydrated in the hot weather is imperative, especially for seniors with an underlying health condition. Dehydration is one of the main reasons why mortality rates are higher among seniors during a heatwave.

The key is to know the early warning signs of dehydration, such as thirst, dry mouth or sticky saliva, or reduced output of urine. People who are moderately dehydrated may have extreme thirst, a mouth very dry in appearance, decreased urination (three times or less daily and dark brown in color), and lightheadedness.

The symptoms of severe dehydration include: severe anxiety and confusion; inability to remain awake; weak, rapid pulse; skin that is cold and clammy or hot and dry; little or no urination; and loss of consciousness.

Older adults should be monitored for early signs of shock, including lightheadedness, signs of fear or confusion, thirst, nausea, vomiting, profuse sweating, and rapid, weak breathing. To learn more about dehydration, contact your physician.

To reduce the chances of dehydration, make water readily available. Remember to include plenty of fruits and vegetables in the diet as they are naturally high in water, and make sure that older relatives have easy access to teas and fruit teas, which all count towards fluid intake. However, limit caffeine as this can cause dehydration. If an elderly relative doesn't like plain water, heavily dilute juice drinks or provide a flavored water. Finally, encourage them to drink little and often so fluid intake is kept at optimum levels during the day.

The hot days of summer are upon us, please stay hydrated.

Maureen A. Wendt is president and CEO of The Dale Association, a non-profit organization that provides senior, mental health, in-home care, caregiver support services and enrichment activities for adults. For more information, call 433-1937 or visit www.daleassociation.com .

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