Did you read about the recent studies showing that exercise provides an immediate boost to the memory of seniors? Turns out there’s a catch, reports the American Physiological Society (APA); the benefits may not apply if a person is suffering from dehydration.
That’s far from the only reason older adults should be sure to have adequate fluid intake. Dehydration—less than optimal fluid in our bodies—can cause heart problems, low blood pressure, digestive disorders, confusion and heat-related illness. It raises the risk of infections, especially of the urinary tract. And it makes seniors more likely to sustain a fall injury.
Yet dehydration becomes more common as we grow older. According to the APA study, “Middle-age and older adults often display a blunted thirst perception, which places them at risk for dehydration.”
What causes this? Experts have used PET scans to show that a region of the brain called the mid-cingulate cortex, which tells our bodies that we need water, often malfunctions in older adults. Older brains might not only fail to send signals that we need to drink; they might also in effect say “OK, that’s enough” even if we’ve only taken a few sips.
Other factors compound the problem. Health challenges from Parkinson’s disease, dementia, the effect of a stroke or arthritis can make it harder for a senior to stay well-hydrated. Certain medications, such as laxatives or those to treat congestive heart failure and high blood pressure, cause our bodies to excrete more fluid. Infections and fevers can dehydrate us. Some people with incontinence choose to refrain from drinking fluids, especially at night. And in some cases, the doctor may recommend restricting fluids for people with heart failure or kidney disease. It’s very important to discuss this with the person’s medical professional.
Be alert for the signs of dehydration, which include extreme thirst, dry mouth, headache, lethargy and hallucinations. It can be harder to recognize dehydration in seniors because they may not feel thirsty, and some of the symptoms of dehydration can be confused with other common conditions.
Six common questions about seniors and hydration
How much fluid should an older adult drink each day? This varies from person to person, depending in part on their height and weight and activity level. For most people, around 64 ounces a day (eight glasses) is good. Ask your doctor about how much fluid you should be consuming.
What should seniors drink? Water is the very best choice! Because of their reduced thirst mechanism, seniors should drink before they feel parched. Get in the habit of sipping small amounts throughout the day. Keep a water bottle full and nearby. Add slice of citrus fruit, cucumbers or strawberries—appealing to look at, and delicious to sip.
What other fluids are good? Water is the very best way to hydrate, but there are other good sources of fluid, such as milk or non-dairy alternatives, juices, soup, veggies and fruits. Watermelon, for example, is well-named, containing more than 90% water.
What about sparkling waters? These can be an acceptable and tasty alternative, but read the label first—some have added sodium or sugar. A study from Virginia Tech found that seniors who drink sugary beverages actually raise their risk of high cholesterol and obesity.
What about coffee and tea? These can have a mild diuretic effect, increasing our output of urine, but experts reassure us that we’ll still gain more liquid than we lose, so unless your doctor tells you otherwise, enjoy.
What about alcoholic beverages? Beer, wine and spirits may seem to quench our thirst, but in fact, alcohol has enough of a diuretic effect that it can dehydrate the body. Don’t drink more than is advised for you—in general, one drink per day for women, two for men—and have some water shortly before and after drinking alcohol.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor about the ideal fluid consumption for you.