The risk of dehydration increases as we age. With necessary body functions already beginning to decline, it’s crucial for seniors to combat dehydration with frequent fluid intake throughout the day. Especially with studies showing that dehydration can negatively impact longevity in the elderly, fluid intake is a fundamental component of a healthy diet for seniors. With some people beginning to experience reduced physical and cognitive ability after losing just 2% to 3% of body fluid, it’s crucial for older adults to hydrate long before they feel thirsty.
In this article, we’ll review the causes, risks, and signs of dehydration in seniors. With this information, family members and caregivers may work to prevent and address dehydration before it becomes severe.
Increased dehydration with age
There are multiple key reasons behind increasing risk for dehydration with older age, namely:
- The amount of water in the body of an 80-year-old is approximately 15% lower than the amount of water in the body of a 20-year-old. With the natural water level in the body lowering gradually with age, older adults will become dehydrated faster than their younger counterparts.
- Muscle mass lowers with age and can cause difficulties in retaining water for seniors.
- Kidney function begins to decline at about age 50. With this downward progression of the kidneys comes a lessened ability to retain water.
- The feeling of thirst lessens with age, so older adults don’t receive as many natural cues to drink water. This can lead to the consumption of fewer liquids and, therefore, dehydration.
- Appetite diminishes as people age, leading to lower caloric intake for adults in older age. Much of the fluids that we take income from food, so seniors are inherently at an increased risk for dehydration due to their diets.
Risks of elderly dehydration
Insufficient hydration in older adults is associated with higher mortality rates. Research into hospitalized patients suffering a stroke showed that patients who were dehydrated had a significantly higher chance than hydrated patients of needing dependent care after discharge or dying in the hospital.
Dehydrated seniors may begin to experience dizziness, fainting, quickened heart rate, confusion, and delirium, as well as fall more frequently than usual, which may lead to injury. Additionally, they may incur infections and fracture bones more easily. Severe symptoms of dehydration in the elderly include seizures and even death.
Simply put, dehydration leads to health complications, some of which could require hospitalization.
Recognizable signs of dehydration
Dehydration in seniors can be a difficult problem to spot for caregivers. These signs can be checked for regularly to catch dehydration before it becomes severe:
- irritability and mood shifts
- excessive sleepiness
- weak pulse or quickened heartbeat
- low blood pressure
- cold extremities
- fast breathing
- clear physical signs of dehydration in the elderly include sunken eyes and trouble walking.
- lessened urine output
- inability to sweat or produce tears.
Caregivers may check if a senior is dehydrated by testing skin turgor. Pull up a small section of skin on the back of the senior’s hand. The skin will return back to its original state almost instantly in a hydrated person. If it doesn’t, the older adult has become dehydrated.
Another way for caregivers to monitor hydration in seniors is to keep an eye on urine color. The urine of a healthy, hydrated older adult will be light in color. Dark urine is a proven sign of dehydration, as is infrequent urination.
Standard water recommendations
You may have heard that eight glasses of water per day is the blanket recommendation for everyone. While eight glasses of water daily may certainly be the perfect amount to keep certain people healthy, one has to consider the fact that with varying bodies, diets, and lifestyles, ideal daily water intake will change from person to person. This is especially true among the elderly, who may have extra health considerations that factor into the right volume of water to consume.
One great strategy for measuring hydration is to consider bodyweight. Seniors should weigh themselves each morning. If they’ve lost two or more pounds from the day before and are experiencing headaches or thirst, they’ve most likely become dehydrated.
- For elderly individuals with limited mobility, keeping a glass or bottle of water nearby their common areas is a simple way to increase fluid intake. This will usually be on the bedside table, on the coffee table by the couch or their favorite seat, and on the kitchen table.
- Seniors should be drinking fluids more frequently than just at mealtimes. Caregivers need to be diligent in encouraging hydration throughout the day, even if the senior doesn’t feel thirsty. The feeling of thirst usually doesn’t hit until after the senior is already dehydrated, so it’s crucial to be proactive about fluid intake.
- While seniors may eat less than they did in younger age, resultantly taking in less water through food, certain foods have a higher water content than others. Vegetables and fruits are two food groups with high water content. Soups also contain a high amount of water and are a beneficial addition to older adults’ diets.
- in relation to fluid intake and eating, people tend to drink more when they’re eating – doing so is a typical habit. So, introducing smaller, more frequent meals and snacks for seniors can be an effective way to raise hydration levels.
- Seniors may not always want to drink water. A strategy for upping hydration is to offer a variety of healthy beverages to encourage frequent fluid intake. Start with juice as a water alternative.
Drinking more fluids is a straightforward lifestyle habit to adopt. But, it can have far-reaching benefits for the health of seniors. From maintaining healthy body function to reducing the risk for hospitalization, simply drinking enough water is a crucial part of healthy aging.
More from Seasons.com:
“Dehydration in the Elderly.” British Nutrition Foundation, British Nutrition Foundation, www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritionscience/life/dehydrationelderly.html.
“Elderly Dehydration.” A Place for Mom, A Place for Mom, Jan. 2018, www.aplaceformom.com/planning-and-advice/articles/elderly-dehydration.
Leeflang, Jennifer. “Hydration Tips for Seniors.” AgingCare.com, AgingCare.com, 12 June 2017, www.agingcare.com/articles/hydration-tips-for-seniors-205594.htm.
Picetti, Dominic et al. “Hydration health literacy in the elderly.” Nutrition and healthy aging vol. 4,3 227-237. 7 Dec. 2017, doi:10.3233/NHA-170026