Hydration: Why It's So Important
You have no doubt heard that it is important to drink water, but do you know why? Water plays a role in just about every bodily function, including controlling body temperature and pumping our blood. While hydration is a life-long need, it becomes more important as we grow older. Why should older adults take care to stay hydrated? For one thing, the sense of thirst diminishes as we age, putting us at higher risk of dehydration if we are not careful about our fluid intake.
How can you tell if you are dehydrated? There’s a common misconception that thirst is the best indicator of dehydration. In fact, thirst is not always a reliable way to tell if you need a drink. Pay attention to other signs that can warn you that you are becoming dehydrated, including dark-colored urine and infrequent urination, fatigue and weakness, irritability, dizziness, headaches, rapid heart rate and low blood pressure, arm or leg cramps, dry mouth, dry skin and lips, decreased cognitive function and confusion.
How do you stay hydrated? The best strategy is to just drink water all day long. How much do you need? Data from the American Heart Association indicates that this amount varies based on factors like weather conditions, clothing worn, and the intensity and duration of activity. It is recommended that women drink about 11 cups of fluid each day, and men take in about 16 cups, but it’s important to discuss your fluid intake with your doctor to determine your specific needs. Some of that fluid can come from food and other beverages, though. If you find it tricky to stay hydrated, carry water with you wherever you go, eat foods with a high water content, and limit your alcohol consumption.
What’s the big deal about hydration? Proper hydration is necessary for the support of all the systems of the body, including our brains. Some of the dangerous effects of dehydration in older people include:
- Severe damage to the kidneys: Your kidneys are tasked with the job of filtering waste from the blood through your urine, and they help to manage the balance of salts and electrolytes in your blood. Without the proper hydration, your kidneys can be compromised, and this leads to toxins, electrolytes, and fluids building up. When it’s severe enough, this can cause severe illness or can even be fatal.
- Urinary incontinence: When you drink enough, you may find yourself heading to the bathroom several times a day. When you are dehydrated, though, you’re more likely to contract a urinary tract infection (UIT), which can cause incontinence. Worse, untreated UTIs can lead to kidney damage and sepsis.
- Impaired digestive function: Hydration is important for digestion, and dehydration can cause constipation, gastritis, acid reflux, and even ulcers. Additionally, the digestive acid that breaks down food requires water, and when you don’t get enough water, your body is unable to absorb the proper nutrients.
- Diminished brain function: Because our brains are about 80 percent water, dehydration can have a major effect on our thinking, leaving us confused and forgetful. Prolonged dehydration in older adults can even cause the brain cells to shrink, which has been linked to the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
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