As we get older, it seems common that we have to deal with issues like tiredness or weak, achey muscles. But as it turns out, it’s not normal to feel chronically fatigued or in pain, and there’s a sneaky culprit that could be behind it for older adults — dehydration.
Dehydration in Older Adults
You probably already know how important it is to drink enough water, but new science suggests that older adults need to take even more caution when it comes to staying hydrated — especially if you are active. For the study, which was conducted by researchers from the University of Ottawa and was published in The Journal of Physiology, the researchers aimed to determine whether exercise affected dehydration levels of young adults differently than older ones.
The team recruited 10 adults averaging the age of 25, and 10 older adults averaging age 61. For the experiment, the subjects completed two trials involving a 90‐minute intravenous infusion of a saline solution (which would cause sweating) followed by 60 minutes of cycling at a fixed speed in dry heat. The researchers measured sweat, heart rate, and body temperature throughout the trials.
When our internal core body temperature is raised due to things like exercise, receptors in the hypothalamus (known as the body’s thermostat) prompt the body to release that heat and cool the body down through sweating. However, according to the results of this experiment, this mechanism — called thermoregulation — doesn’t function as well in older adults.
The researchers found that when exercising, the older subjects became dehydrated (as evidenced by how much they sweat) but experienced less increases in their body temperatures than their younger counterparts. This means that when older people exercise, their bodies seem to have more trouble releasing heat. In such a case, an older adult might be less aware that they’re becoming dehydrated and need to drink water.
Medical experts assert that these findings are especially important for older folks, as dehydration can be a major cause of fatigue, chronic pain, and a host of other health conditions. “When it comes to the elderly, there are a couple things we need to remember,” Dr. Nodar Janas, medical director of Upper East Side Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in New York, told Healthline. “As we get older, our thirst center — which is located in the hypothalamus — isn’t as active as it used to be, so the brain doesn’t always give the signal that we need to drink. We need to make an extra effort to ensure that the elderly consume appropriate amounts of fluids, whether they’re thirsty or not.”
He continued, “If an elderly person gets dehydrated, one of the first organs to suffer are the kidneys, which can cause acute kidney failure. Dehydration also creates electrolyte imbalances, which can be deadly.
“Another anecdotal point to mention is that the elderly seem to have a worse tolerance to cold. As we age, we prefer warmer temperatures and sometimes too warm of an environment can lead to excessive perspiration without realizing you’re dehydrated.”
This study is one of the first to point out the specific mechanisms through which older adults become dehydrated when compared to younger ones. In fact, one study from 2015 even showed that 37 percent of people 65 and older admitted to emergency rooms showed signs of dehydration. As our ability to regulate heat in our bodies becomes compromised with age, we are more likely to get dehydrated without replenishing those much-needed fluids, putting our health at risk.
In that case, it’s extremely important that as we age, not only should we prioritize drinking more water, but we should also increase our intake of water-rich foods which also help prevent dehydration. Additionally, try to avoid dehydrating foods like soda, coffee, energy drinks, and alcohol.
Here’s to staying hydrated and healthy!