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dangers of dehydration

Dangers of Dehydration in Older Adults

Here we are at the hottest time of year when our bodies need extra fluids to help keep us cool and compensate for fluid loss. But often we fail to compensate for that, and as a result, we end up flirting with dehydration and feeling lethargic, weak, or worse.

And it’s not confined just to the hotter months: We can become dehydrated sitting indoors in air conditioning if we’re not regularly taking in the fluids our bodies need.

Our primary care doctors at Cohen Medical Associates in Delray Beach want to alert our patients, especially those over 65, that dehydration can have unexpected and even dire consequences.

Water’s many benefits

Approximately 60 percent of your body weight is made up of water, and your blood is 90 percent water. Every cell in your body needs it to function. Water regulates body temperature, lubricates and cushions joints, protects your spinal cord and other sensitive tissues, and removes wastes and toxins. It also delivers oxygen throughout the body.

Water delivers nutrients to every cell of your body and helps your normal respiratory and waste disposal functions operate normally. It also helps keep joints lubricated, reducing friction and pain.

Keeping the body well hydrated not only thins the blood, helping the heart pump blood more easily but also helps muscles work more efficiently. It helps optimize blood flow to the brain, assisting in the production of mood-boosting neurotransmitters. And it’s key to preventing kidney stones and urinary tract infections.

When we don’t get enough water, we can become dehydrated.

Dehydration’s consequences

Dehydration can occur in anyone at any age. It can be caused by excess vomiting and/or diarrhea or a high fever during illness, especially in infants and young children.

Other illnesses such as uncontrolled diabetes or kidney disease increase the risk, as can certain medications such as diuretics and some blood pressure drugs increase urination.

Strenuous exercise, especially outdoors in hot weather, is a particular risk factor.

Regardless of the cause, regular failure to drink enough fluids can lead to serious problems, including:

  • headaches
  • dizziness and falls
  • muscle cramps
  • impaired memory and concentration
  • constipation
  • urinary tract infections
  • kidney stones
  • kidney failure

Dehydration can trigger heat exhaustion, heatstroke, seizures, and even low-blood volume shock in extreme cases. All these things are potentially life-threatening.

A particular concern for older people

Dehydration is a common cause of hospitalization among older people. Oddly, though, it’s not often investigated as a cause for some frightening—and often serious—conditions.

As we get past age 50 or so, we tend to lose our ability to recognize thirst. In addition, the water content in our bodies drops from about 75 percent as children to around 50 percent when we’re middle-aged.

We also tend to drink less because the bladder can’t hold as much as when we were younger, and we don’t want to be running to the bathroom constantly.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, persistent dehydration that causes difficulty walking, confusion, rapid heart rate, or other more severe symptoms can land seniors in the hospital, but early symptoms such as dry mouth, fatigue, dizziness, and muscle cramping are often attributed to other medical conditions, medications, and even the normal effects of aging.

Dehydration signs to watch for

Besides the early signs listed above, other signals of dehydration can include:

  • unquenchable thirst
  • few or no tears
  • unexplained tiredness
  • sunken eyes
  • dark-colored urine
  • confusion

One quick method to check for dehydration is to gently pinch the skin on the top of your hand. If it snaps back into place almost immediately (elasticity), you’re okay. If not, you’re dehydrated.

Dehydration prevention

Because you can’t depend on thirst to signal when you need more fluids, you’ll need to develop the habit.

The old 8/8 rule of thumb is easy to remember and good practice. That is eight eight-ounce glasses of water every day. If you can’t remember to drink that much throughout the day, set reminders on your phone or a timer.

We’re often asked if other liquids are okay because plain water can get a bit boring. The answer is a qualified “yes.”

  • Fruit juices are good unless you’re diabetic because they contain so many good-for-you nutrients.
  • Milk is fine, too.
  • Coffee, tea, and caffeinated sodas are okay in moderation, but caffeine acts as a diuretic, and the sugar in sodas isn’t good for you.
  • Sparkling mineral waters can be a nice change and have the added advantage of containing beneficial minerals.

Don’t overlook foods that are high in liquids: soups and broths, and fruits and vegetables, especially those high in water like watermelon. And consider adding flavorings like lemon or lime juice to your water to perk up your interest.

If you’re still having trouble with dehydration, talk to us. We might be able to pinpoint issues with your diet or medications that can help.

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