t’s important for caregivers of the elderly to be more aware of ways to prevent dehydration, recognize its signs, and treat it promptly.
Dehydration, A Hidden Risk to the Elderly
Sudden shifts in the body’s water balance can frequently result in dehydration, and the physical changes associated with aging expose the elderly in particular to the risks of dehydration. The danger is that they may not know about their dehydrated condition, which could lead to more serious consequences.
In one study of residents in a long-term care facility, author Janet Mentes reported that 31 percent of patients were dehydrated. In a related study cited by Mentes, researchers found that 48 percent of older adults admitted into hospitals after treatment at emergency departments actually had signs of dehydration in their laboratory results.
Dehydration: The Causes, The Health Risks
Dehydration is often due partly to inadequate water intake, but can happen for many other reasons as well, including as a side effect of prescribed medication like diuretics, diarrhea, excessive sweating, loss of blood and diseases such as diabetes. Aging itself makes people less aware of thirst and also gradually lowers the body’s ability to regulate its fluid balance:
Elders may not feel thirst as keenly.
Scientists warn that the ability to be aware of and respond to thirst is slowly blunted as we age. As a result, older people do not feel thirst as readily as younger people do. This increases the chances of them consuming less water and consequently suffering dehydration.
Less body fluids, lower kidney function.
The body loses water as we age. Until about age 40, the proportion of total body fluids to body weight is about 60% in men and 52% in women (the gender difference is due to greater muscle mass and lower body fat in men compared to women; muscle cells contain more water than fat cells). After age 60, the proportion goes down to 52% in men and 46% in women. The reason for the decline is the loss of muscle mass as one ages and a corresponding increase in fat cells.
In addition, the kidneys’ ability to remove toxins from the blood progressively declines with age. This means the kidneys are not as efficient in concentrating urine in less water, thus older people lose more water than younger ones.
If dehydration is not identified and treated, the consequences to health are significant, including reduced or even loss of consciousness, rapid but weak pulse, and lowered blood pressure. If rehydration is not started, the situation can become life-threatening.
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