The Elderly and Dehydration


How to keep the Elderly Hydrated

Watching for signs of illness in a loved one can be challenging. Some illnesses show up quite clearly, while others have a more subtle effect on daily living. Dehydration, depending on the severity, sometimes creates only small telltale signs while having a big effect on the body, especially in the elderly.

Dehydration occurs when a person loses more water than they take in. Adequate fluid allows the body to regulate temperature through sweating, maintain blood pressure and eliminate bodily waste. If severe enough, dehydration can lead to confusion, weakness, urinary track infections, pneumonia, bedsores in bed-ridden patients or even death. Generally speaking, humans can't survive more than four days without water.

Dehydration: The Causes, The Health Risks

Dehydration is often due partly to inadequate water intake, but can happen for many other reasons as well, including as a side effect of prescribed medication like diuretics, diarrhea, excessive sweating, loss of blood and diseases such as diabetes. Aging itself makes people less aware of thirst and also gradually lowers the body’s ability to regulate its fluid balance:

Elders may not feel thirst as keenly.

Scientists warn that the ability to be aware of and respond to thirst is slowly blunted as we age. As a result, older people do not feel thirst as readily as younger people do. This increases the chances of them consuming less water and consequently suffering dehydration.

Less body fluids, lower kidney function.

The body loses water as we age. Until about age 40, the proportion of total body fluids to body weight is about 60% in men and 52% in women (the gender difference is due to greater muscle mass and lower body fat in men compared to women; muscle cells contain more water than fat cells). After age 60, the proportion goes down to 52% in men and 46% in women. The reason for the decline is the loss of muscle mass as one ages and a corresponding increase in fat cells.
In addition, the kidneys’ ability to remove toxins from the blood progressively declines with age. This means the kidneys are not as efficient in concentrating urine in less water, thus older people lose more water than younger ones.
If dehydration is not identified and treated, the consequences to health are significant, including reduced or even loss of consciousness, rapid but weak pulse, and lowered blood pressure. If rehydration is not started, the situation can become life-threatening.