How dry you are (or aren't)

Dehydration can kill

Created date

July 28th, 2017
The dry desert.

The dry desert.

Research shows that seniors are a dry bunch. One study showed that about 30% of residents in a long-term care facility were dehydrated. Another study showed that almost half of older adults admitted to the hospital after being treated in the emergency room had evidence of dehydration. 

Signs of dehydration include reduced urination, dark-colored urine, dizziness, headache, dry skin, dry mouth, and fatigue. If dehydration goes untreated for too long, people may lose consciousness, and their blood pressure can become dangerously low.

Seniors at high risk

“You lose about two liters of water every day, through perspiration, urine, stool, and breathing,” says Jill Studley, M.D., staff physician at Highland Springs, an Erickson Living community in Dallas, Tex. “If you are active, especially if it’s hot, you lose even more.”

Mother Nature designed the human body to have a natural defense against becoming too dry—a sense of thirst. But experts say that can be a poor indicator of dehydration. “Your body’s feedback systems don’t operate as efficiently as they used to when you were younger,” Studley says. “You could be significantly dehydrated and not even be aware of it.” Sometimes, what you perceive as a sense of hunger is actually thirst.

When dehydration sets in, your body kicks in with water-conservation measures. “Your body’s response to dehydration is largely dependent on your kidneys,” Studley says. “It’s up to these organs to begin conserving water and regulating electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. With age, however, your kidneys don’t operate as efficiently as they once did, even in the absence of kidney disease.” 

When you become dehydrated, your body depends on stored water to get by. “Older adults have significantly less water in the body that can act as a reserve source, Studley says. “Loss of muscle mass is one of the main reasons.”

In addition, the stress that chronic medical conditions put on your body, combined with medications, can accelerate water loss. 

Get what you need

Conversely, having enough fluid on board is associated with good health. Studies show that well-hydrated seniors have less constipation, a decreased risk of falls, more energy, and for men, a lower risk of bladder cancer. Other studies show that drinking five eight-ounce glasses of water every day reduces the risk of death from coronary artery disease. 

Everyone’s fluid needs differ. “You should take in about two liters of fluids every day,” Studley says. “You need more if you are in a hot environment or especially active. As a general rule, you know you are sufficiently hydrated if your urine is pale yellow in color.”

There are many ways to stay hydrated without guzzling water all at once (see sidebar). “Carry a water bottle to remind yourself to take frequent sips,” Studley suggests. 

People who have limits on how much fluid they should have because of kidney disease, heart failure, edema, or other medical conditions need to check with their doctor, especially if they know they will be active or outside in the heat. “Your doctor can give you guidelines about fluid requirements under these circumstances,” Studley says.

“The biggest mistake I see patients make is restricting their fluid intake because of incontinence or because they don’t want to have to make too many bathroom trips,” Studley says. “Talk to your doctor about how to treat bladder-control issues.”

Hydration tips

• Drink a glass of juice or water first thing in the morning.

• Sip from a water glass between bites during meals.

• Have a cup of low-sodium soup as a snack.

• Drink a glass of water whenever you arrive home from errands.

• Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, which are made up of mostly water.

• Drink a full glass of water with your daily meds.

• Avoid alcohol and caffeine because they cause you to urinate more.