What to Know About Dehydration in Older Adults

Dehydration is dangerous no matter what your age, but seniors are at a greater risk for dehydration than other age groups. Dehydration can happen quicker than you think and can cause damage before you have a chance to rehydrate. Learn the signs of dehydration and how you can prevent it from happening to you.

Understanding Dehydration

Dehydration happens when you don’t drink enough water. When your body's water content is too low, it causes damage quickly. Dehydration is especially prevalent on hot days or after vigorous exercise. Mild or moderate dehydration is easy to recover from, but severe dehydration requires immediate medical attention. 

Risks for senior dehydration include:

  • Diarrhea and vomiting – Especially Diarrhea and vomiting that comes on suddenly and is persistent. In addition to losing fluids, your body’s electrolytes and minerals are quickly depleted, making dehydration symptoms worse.
  • Fever – Generally speaking, high fevers quickly lead to dehydration. The higher the fever, the faster you become dehydrated.
  • Excessive sweating – If you don’t replace the fluids lost while sweating, you can become dehydrated. Don’t wait to replace fluids at the end of a workout or strenuous activity. Instead, drink a little water all along to avoid severe dehydration.
  • Increased urination – Diabetes that isn’t yet diagnosed or controlled through diet or medication can lead to passing more urine and depleting your water supply.

Signs of dehydration include:

  • Feeling unquenchable thirst
  • Few or no tears
  • Dry, sticky mouth
  • Not urinating frequently
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Unexplained tiredness
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Confusion

Call your doctor immediately if you experience any of these symptoms:

  • Diarrhea or vomiting that lasts longer than 24 hours
  • Feeling irritable and disoriented
  • Sleepier than usual without reason
  • Inability to keep fluids down
  • Bloody or black stool

Why Does Dehydration Affect Seniors?

Feeling thirsty. Your body has a natural defense against dehydration – the feeling of thirst. While there are guidelines in place that tell you how much water to drink each day, typically you can drink to your thirst.

Your body lets you know how much water you need by giving you the sensation of needing to drink something. As you age, your body’s thirst signal diminishes. When your body needs water, you may not even realize it because you don’t feel thirsty like you once did.

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Body function. Your kidneys may not work as effectively with age, leading to a fluid imbalance in your body. Since your body has less water composition as you age, you become dehydrated much quicker than when you were younger.

Medications. Diuretics are especially prone to causing dehydration. If you take a combination of several medications, be aware of interactions that may lead to dehydration.

Cognitive impairment. If you suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s, you’re at a greater risk for dehydration because you may not remember to drink when you need to. Even if your body sends thirst signals, decreased cognitive ability may mean your brain doesn’t understand the signals or it may miss them completely.

Preventing Dehydration

Drink water. The best way to prevent dehydration is to drink plenty of water. Keep in mind that drinking soda and coffee may increase the effects of dehydration in seniors, worsening your condition. Try to stick to water, milk, or juice.

Set reminders. If you don’t feel thirsty very often, set reminders on your phone or use a timer. Make sure you drink a certain amount of water each time your reminder goes off. By drinking water consistently throughout your day you can easily prevent dehydration.‌

Once you establish a habit of drinking more water, it will be easier to maintain. Keep in mind that you need to drink more than usual if you’re physically active or if it’s particularly hot outside.

Consider your diet. Many fruits and vegetables have high water content and contribute to staying hydrated. If you find that drinking more water is difficult, try incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet. Other foods that promote hydration include:

  • Yogurt
  • Jellies
  • Soup
  • Broth

Enhance your water. If you get bored drinking plain water all day, try infusing it with fruit. Add lemon, lime, or orange to your water so it tastes better. You can also add herbs like mint or basil if you prefer a stronger taste than fruit provides.

Talk to your doctor. If you’ve tried these tips and you’re still experiencing dehydration, talk to your doctor. A healthcare professional can ask questions about your diet, habits, and medications to determine the cause of your dehydration.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 23, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:

British Nutrition Foundation: “Dehydration in the elderly.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Drink Up: Dehydration is an Often Overlooked Health Risk for Seniors.”

Mayo Clinic: “Dehydration.”

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