Dehydration happens when your body loses more fluids than it takes in.
Your body needs water for a variety of processes, including regulating your temperature, getting rid of wastes, and lubricating your joints.
Staying hydrated is particularly important as you get older. An older adult who’s dehydrated may be at a higher risk for complications like:
- electrolyte imbalances
- kidney problems
- loss of balance
Read on to learn more about why older adults are more prone to dehydration, the symptoms to look out for, and what you can do to help prevent dehydration.
Older adults are more susceptible to dehydration for several reasons.
Dehydration risk factors in older adults
- A decline in total body fluid. As we age, the amount of fluid in our bodies begins to decrease. This means there are fewer water reserves available for your body to use as you get older.
- Lowered thirst response. Feeling thirsty is your body’s way of letting you know you need water. However, because the thirst response becomes weaker with age, older adults may not know they need to drink.
- Decreased kidney function. The function of the kidneys can decline with age, meaning that more water may be lost through urination.
- Health conditions and medications. Some older adults have underlying health conditions or take medications. In some cases, these conditions or meds can lead to an increase in water loss through urination.
Dehydration can have a variety of causes. Below are some of the most common causes of dehydration in older adults:
- Heat exposure. Spending time in hot or humid conditions can lead to increased fluid loss through sweating.
- Illness. Being sick with symptoms like fever, vomiting, or diarrhea can cause dehydration.
- Mobility problems. It may be more difficult for older adults with mobility issues to be able to get water on their own.
- Underlying health conditions. Some underlying health conditions, such as diabetes or kidney disease, can cause you to lose more fluid than normal.
- Medications. A side effect of some medications may be increased urination, which can cause additional fluid loss. Some examples of medication that can cause increased urination include diuretics and certain blood pressure medications.
Some common signs and symptoms of dehydration include:
- dry mouth
- tiredness or fatigue
- sunken eyes
- a decrease in urination
- urine that’s a darker color than normal
- muscle cramping
- feeling dizzy or lightheaded
More serious dehydration symptoms require immediate medical attention. These symptoms include:
- a rapid heart rate
- trouble with movement or walking
- confusion or disorientation
- diarrhea or vomiting that lasts longer than 24 hours
If dehydration isn’t treated, it can lead to serious complications, such as:
- urinary and kidney problems, including urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and even kidney failure
- seizures due to low levels of potassium and sodium
- heat exhaustion or heatstroke
- hypovolemic shock, a life threatening complication that causes a drop in blood pressure and oxygen levels due to low blood volume
Treatment for dehydration involves replacing the fluids that have been lost. For mild to moderate dehydration, this includes drinking water or other fluids, such as juices or broths.
Sometimes, vomiting or diarrhea can lead to a significant loss of electrolytes as well as water. In these situations, drinking beverages that contain electrolytes may be helpful. Examples include sports drinks and Pedialyte.
If dehydration is more severe, hospitalization may be needed. In this situation, fluids and electrolytes will be given intravenously.
If you’re an older adult, the following tips may help you stay well hydrated:
- Try to drink water throughout the day. Other beverages that may also help with hydration include milk, flavored sparkling water, and fruit juices with low sugar. Drink coffee and tea sparingly, as they can have diuretic effects.
- If it’s hard to drink too much liquid all at once, take small sips.
- Try to include foods in your diet that have higher water content. Some examples include watermelon, cucumber, celery, strawberries, and low sodium broths or soups.
- If you don’t find water very appealing, try adding a slice or squeeze of lemon or lime to add flavor.
- Plan to drink more water if you’re going to be out in hot or humid conditions for a prolonged period of time, or if you’re going to be exercising.
- If you’re ill with symptoms like fever, vomiting, or diarrhea, make sure to drink more fluids than normal.
- If you have an underlying health condition, speak with your doctor about your specific fluid and hydration needs.
If you’re a caregiver for an older adult, you can do the following to help prevent dehydration:
- Remind them to hydrate throughout the day, especially during mealtimes and after exercise or exertion.
- Keep water in places where it’s accessible and easy to reach.
- Implement easier access to the bathroom if they’re concerned about not making it to the toilet in time after drinking fluids.
Older adults are more susceptible to dehydration. There are many reasons for this, including lower fluid content in the body, decreased thirst response, and medications or underlying health conditions.
Recognizing the symptoms of dehydration is important so you can work to replace lost fluids. Look out for symptoms like dry mouth, fatigue, dark-colored urine, and lightheadedness.
Treating dehydration involves replacing lost fluids. You can work to prevent dehydration by making sure you regularly take in fluids throughout the day. This can include water, juices, broths, or foods with high water content.
If you’re unsure of your hydration needs, talk to your doctor to find out how much water you should be drinking each day.