This article was originally written on May 24, 2012. It was updated with new information on September 6, 2016.
The hot, sweat-inducing summer months and the cold, drying temperatures of winter have more in common than just being an inconvenience. The extremes of these seasons can exacerbate instances of dehydration in seniors.
According to awareness organization Hydration 4 Health, dehydration in the elderly is “associated with increased mortality rates among hospitalized older adults and can precipitate emergency hospitalization and increase the risk of repeated stays in hospital.” They have also found that dehydration is one of the ten most frequent diagnoses leading to hospitalization in the country. It is important to understand the risk, watch for signs, and put together a prevention plan to address this preventable ailment in those we care for.
How Hydration Needs Change With Age
Understanding hydration and seniors can be tricky. On the surface it seems so intuitive: when someone’s thirsty they’ll reach for liquids and soon the problem is solved. As we age, however, thirst no longer precipitates dehydration in the same way as when we’re young, as shown by research from the National Academy of Sciences.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, the brain of an older adult gives signals to the body that thirst has been satiated when in fact it has not. This miscommunication is thought to be connected to weakened stomach muscles, which in older adults can expand more with less intake, leading elders to feel full and stop consuming liquids before they’re properly hydrated.
Another difficulty when it comes to hydration and the elderly is their physiology. Humans are mostly made up water, but according to Hydration 4 Health that amount decreases by approximately 15% between the ages of 20 and 80. Additionally, the Mayo Clinic’s risk factors of elderly dehydration show that certain chronic diseases (heart failure, diabetes, kidney disease, etc.) can also affect the body’s ability to stay hydrated and of course chronic diseases are more common as we age.
Preventing Dehydration in Seniors
A 2007 Australian study found that older adults don’t drink enough water and become dehydrated during heat waves, proposing that their brains and bodies don’t properly coordinate thirst signals. While the researchers aren’t sure whether the body is ineffectively sending these signals — due to weakened stomach muscles, reduced throat sensitivity or diminished kidney function — or whether the brain is ineffectively interpreting them. Regardless of the causes, this finding is important because it puts elderly hydration at the forefront of senior health.
Since thirst isn’t the reliable indicator of dehydration it is for younger people, it is important to be on the lookout of other signs of dehydration. Fatigue and headaches may show that something is wrong. So can decreased urine output, dry nasal passages or dry mouth. Lastly any issues of confusion, lightheadedness irritability, or illness where fluids are lost (vomiting or diarrhea) should be considered indicators of dehydration.
Hints for Hydration
To prevent dehydration, scheduled hydration should be considered. As mentioned before, older adults may feel full with less, so the goal is not to have them down a day’s worth of liquids in one sitting. Instead try splitting the recommended amount of water intake throughout the day using a measured water bottle, and then encouraging their progress at regular intervals.
Also remember that other age related physical conditions may make ambulatory movements a little harder—so try to end their hydration regimen a few hours before bedtime to prevent having to make trips to the bathroom at night.
Finally it is important to remember that water, though the best hydrator, isn’t the only one. Fruits and vegetables can help with hydration. Here are a few fruits and veggies that have a high water content—not to mention added vitamins and nutrients—to help seniors stay hydrated:
- Leafy greens, especially iceberg lettuce—although it doesn’t have the fiber and nutrients of darker leafy greens
- Melons, especially watermelon
How do you stay hydrated? If you have any helpful tips, we’d love to hear them in the comments below.