Drink (water), it’s really good for you
Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.
Our bodies are constantly losing water through normal functions such as breathing, going to the bathroom, sweating and through the production of tears and saliva, but if we lose too much water, our bodies become dehydrated and stop functioning properly. And for a variety of reasons, the risk of dehydration is greater for older adults.
In addition to the everyday activities that cause our bodies to lose water, other factors can cause water loss at a higher rate. These include fevers, vomiting and diarrhea when we are sick, sweating a lot, and using the bathroom excessively due to medical conditions or medications.
Symptoms of mild dehydration include feeling thirsty, having a dry or sticky mouth, infrequent urination, dark urine, headaches, constipation or muscle cramping and daytime fatigue. In severe dehydration cases, the person may experience nausea or vomiting, dizziness, confusion or disorientation, loss of consciousness, increases in breathing and heart rate, or a drop in blood pressure.
Severe dehydration over a prolonged period of time can result in a number of serious health problems, many of which can be life-threatening. In addition to heat-related injuries ranging from cramping and heat exhaustion to the more serious and deadly heat stroke, dehydration can lead to seizures caused by an imbalance of electrolytes in the body, or to kidney stones, urinary tract infections and, in some cases, kidney failure when the body is no longer able to process wastes in the blood.
Lowered blood volume shock is another life-threatening problem that can result from severe dehydration. Also called hypovolemic shock, this occurs when there is too little blood in the body for the heart to pump effectively, leading to a drop in blood pressure and possibly to organ failure. While this is usually caused by a sudden loss of blood due to injury or internal bleeding, it can also be caused when other fluids are expelled from the body faster than they are replaced.
Yet another danger is swelling in the brain which can be caused when fluids are returned to the body, and too much water is put back into the brain’s cells, causing them to burst. In other cases, dehydration left untreated can lead to coma and to death.
The good news is that a person can prevent the effects of dehydration easily enough simply by replacing those fluids their body has lost. Those fluids can be replenished through the foods we eat and by drinking water and other beverages. Drinking water is preferable to sodas and other sugary drinks because water has no calories.
While it is commonly thought that a person needs to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day to stay properly hydrated, in reality there is no scientific evidence behind these claims. In fact, the amount of fluids needed varies from person to person and depends on a variety of factors including a person’s weight, their level of activity, the climate and weather where they’re living, and their age.
A good rule of thumb is that a person should drink a cup of water for every 20 pounds of weight, and those living in warmer climates or exercising often may need to drink more to replenish the fluids lost by sweating. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor to get a better understanding of how much water you should be drinking each day.
Older adults may need to drink more water to stay properly hydrated since the amount of water in our bodies decreases as we age. By the time a person reaches 80 years old, their body’s water content will have dropped by 20 percent.
A number of age-related conditions, such as progressive decrease in kidney function, can make it difficult for our bodies to retain water in our later years. Our sense of thirst also decreases with age, meaning a person may not be drinking enough water simply because they may not feel thirsty, even though their body needs to replenish fluids.
Illnesses such as diabetes and kidney disease can make retaining fluids difficult, as can certain medications, such as diuretics, which cause more frequent urination. Caffeine is also a diuretic, meaning that too much coffee or other caffeinated beverages can also lead to dehydration in older adults. This makes them a less desirable alternative to water for replenishing lost fluids.
Seniors with dementia or memory problems may not remember to drink water, and if they do remember, they may forget how much and do not drink enough.
Drinking may be an inconvenience for older adults experiencing difficulty swallowing or suffering from a sore throat related to illness, while seniors with mobility or incontinence issues may not be drinking enough water intentionally, in order to prevent the need to get up as often to get a drink or to use the bathroom.
Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines and familiar surroundings.