Dehydration is a state in which the body does not have sufficient water, electrolytes, and other fluids to function properly; it occurs when you use or lose more water than you consume. It’s dangerous, especially over a prolonged period of time, and unfortunately older people are at a higher risk for it – and suffer more complications accordingly.
As we age, the likelihood of becoming dehydrated more frequently or for longer periods increases, and it’s at its highest among the elderly (along with infants). This happens for a number of reasons: in terms of the physical, our ability to sense thirst diminishes with age, along with the ability to sense and regulate changes in temperature, and the body’s ability to conserve water.
Lifestyle and environmental factors also come into play. Older adults often have smaller appetites than younger people, so they are prone to eating and drinking less often, especially if they live alone or in a nursing home, or if they are embarrassed by incontinence issues. Those with mental issues such as dementia or Alzheimer’s may simply forget to eat and drink, and conditions such as diabetes or other physical disabilities can make getting enough fluids difficult to manage. Certain medications can also cause imbalances in hydration levels.
It’s important to be vigilant to signs of dehydration in the elderly, which include lethargy, lightheadedness, or confusion, dark or decreased urine output, dry mouth and headache.
The effects of dehydration are naturally more damaging in older people than young, and they can have more serious complications, from constipation to kidney problems and even death. It’s important for their family and caretakers to not only look for symptoms, but also encourage them to drink water or sports drinks and make it as easy as possible to do so. They should educate themselves about medications and the ways they affect fluid levels, and remind patients of the importance of getting enough water. Those who live alone should take special care to drink and eat enough high water-content foods (fruits, vegetables, soups) throughout the day, and monitor their intake as well as physical feelings.