We all know that drinking water is important. It makes up more than 50 per cent of the human body, and from splitting headaches to dizziness and fatigue, dehydration is a quick route to a miserable day.
A new study suggests there are a number of misconceptions among older people about hydration, which could be harming their health and wellbeing.
Dehydration among the elderly can be dangerous, but is preventable. Here’s what you need to know…
What are the misconceptions?
Though most of the study’s participants agreed that water matters, there was some confusion over the hows and whys. Some associated hydration solely with water – neglecting the hydrating benefits of other beverages, including tea and coffee, which could make hydration more palatable.
Many needed external prompts to actively consider water intake (such as during a prolonged period of hot weather), and drank only when thirsty. Although thirst is a natural symptom of dehydration, it’s been found that feelings of thirst tend to decrease in later life, and some older people might need to hydrate as a matter of discipline more than desire.
The cause of this reduction in thirst has not been discovered, but the consequences of it are well known: dehydration is a common cause of hospitalisation, especially among the older population.
Our body composition also changes as we age, older adults have less water in their bodies compared with children and younger adults. But water doesn’t stop being any less crucial for many bodily functions, from lubricating joints to regulating body temperature and pumping blood to the muscles.
So, not getting enough of it can have serious health consequences.
The study also found widespread uncertainty regarding the recommended daily water intake. You may have heard of the 8×8 rule – a popular guideline stipulating eight, eight-ounce glasses of water per day. The Australian Dietary guidelines recommend men aged 19 and over to drink 2.6 litres (about 10 cups) and women aged 19 and over to drink 2.1 litres (about eight cups).
Finally, researchers highlighted the stigma associated with increasing incontinence, and an associated distrust of fluids. “Her generation has a chronic panic about not managing to get to the loo fast enough,” said one carer of her charge. “She moves slowly, that’s the thing, although she is completely continent.”
Why is dehydration dangerous?
Dehydration doesn’t really display different symptoms among older people, it’s more that those symptoms can do more damage. “Dehydration can lead to dizziness,” says Vivienne Birch, director of quality and compliance for Bupa Care Homes, “which among older people can cause an increase in falls.
“It can also cause an increase in urinary tract infections (UTIs), which can lead to discomfort and mean that people might need to pass water more often, or without warning. Among older people, UTIs can sometimes trigger changes in behaviour, bringing on dementia-like symptoms such as confusion or agitation.”
A dehydrated body simply functions poorly, and is at greater risk of hospitalisation, infection, disability, and mortality. Stroke victims, for instance, have been found to be more than twice as likely to experience future impairment if they’re dehydrated when the stroke occurs.
How to spot dehydration
“One of the easiest ways to check hydration,” says Ms Birch, “is by looking at the colour of just-passed urine. It should be nearly clear, and darker shades signal dehydration.”
Of course, this is not always possible or appropriate, so she says you should also look for dry mouth and lips, sunken eyes and feelings of dizziness or drowsiness. For the clearest diagnosis, you should talk to a doctor, and undergo a blood test.
A trip to the doctor or ED may be recommended if a person hasn’t urinated all day, or if symptoms evolve into disorientation, seizures, a weak or rapid pulse, or consistent dizziness when standing. These might be signs of severe dehydration and may require urgent treatment.
Tips to stay hydrated
Awareness is key, try to keep in mind how much you’ve drunk throughout the day, make a little note next to the fridge or set reminders on your phone if that helps.
Water is best but we all know it can get a little boring. Try flavouring it with some fresh fruit or alternating a glass of water with tea, coffee, juice or milk.
Many foods are also very hydrating. Try incorporating high-water foods such as cucumber, melons and oranges into your diet.
Try to make it a routine, for example, drink a glass of water with every meal, or when taking medicine.
Do you keep track of how much water you have each day? Or do you mainly drink when you’re thirsty?
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