Dehydration in the Elderly

By Dr. Ritu Krishnatreye, BHMS

Dehydration in the elderly

Although anyone can suffer from dehydration, certain individuals, including the elderly, are at higher risk.

One reason is that detecting dehydration in the elderly can be a bit challenging. Some of the signs of dehydration could be shrugged off as part of the normal aging process.

Dehydration in senior adults should not be taken lightly. It can cause bodily harm, and if it isn’t dealt with, may even be fatal.

Symptoms of Dehydration


Water is a major component of blood. Dehydration makes the heart work harder.

The ability of the blood to carry nutrients and oxygen is reduced, which can leave an individual feeling tired and weak.

Headaches and light-headedness

The body uses water to help keep it cool. When body fluid levels get too low, the body finds it difficult to release heat. This, in turn, can cause headaches in the elderly. 

A lack of water and salt electrolytes in the body also affect the activity of the brain, which can result in light-headedness.

Pain and cramps in muscles and joints

Water acts as a natural lubricant to minimize friction between bones and joints. With body fluid gets low, it can cause an increase of friction in joints, resulting in joint pain.

Another common aspect of dehydration is the loss of magnesium salts from the body. Magnesium plays an important role in maintaining healthy nerve transmission and muscle function. A lack of magnesium can result in muscle cramps. 

Reasons for Dehydration in the Elderly


One of the major reasons for dehydration in the elderly is medications. Most senior adults suffer from hypertension or some other health condition, and take numerous medications.

Hypertension medications, diuretics and anti-depressants can cause excessive urination, leading to dehydration.

Possible solutions:

  1. Reduce the intake of tea, coffee or other caffeinated beverages, as well as alcohol, as these are all diuretics as well

  2. Drink more water or other liquids that help to counter dehydration

  3. Take a good electrolyte to replace electrolytes lost through excessive urination or sweating

  4. Speak to your doctor about changing to medications that pose less of a threat of dehydration 

Change in thirst perception

Studies have found that the perception of thirst tends to decline as we get older.

As a result, senior adults tend to drink less water, which may lead to dehydration.

To overcome this problem:

  1. Make it a point to drink 6 to 8 glasses of water a day, whether you feel thirsty or not

  2. Eat foods that have a high water content, like fruits, salads, soups or vegetables

  3. Track your hydration progress by monitoring the color of your urine. It should be light in color

Change in kidney function

With advancing age, the kidneys have less of an ability to conserve fluid.

The only answer to this it to take in more fluids each day. 

Decreased mobility

Many senior adults have a decrease in mobility, making it less convenient to get up and get something to drink. This is especially true of those who are frail or not feeling well.

These senior citizens rely on their caregivers. Unfortunately, some caregivers may not understand the extra attention that should be given to keep senior adults properly hydrated.

Possible solutions:

  1. Speak to caregivers, asking them to try extra hard to help keep their patients hydrated

  2. Keep a jug of fresh water in every room where it is easily accessible. Keeping a water bottle next to the bed or your favorite chair is helpful, especially if there are mobility issues

Essential Electrolytes for Rehydration

Dehydration is not just characterized by a loss of water from the body, but may also include a loss of electrolytes.

When the body loses fluid from diarrhea, vomiting or sweating, electrolytes are carried away with the fluid, and need replaced.

Severe dehydration can occur when the body is deprived of important electrolyte minerals like potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium and chlorine.  These minerals are essential for various biochemical reactions in the body.

When the brain doesn't have sufficient electrolytes, the shortage inhibits the secretion of the Anti-diuretic hormone, which is the hormone secreted by the pituitary gland that is essential for maintaining a proper balance of fluids in the body.

For proper re-hydration, it is necessary to replenish lost electrolytes.

Possible solutions

  • Buttermilk spiced with rock salt

  • Lemon juice

  • A banana smoothie

  • Add electrolytes to a glass of water or juice

Dehydration can Cause Constipation

Dehydration and constipation go hand in hand in older adults. In fact, dehydration is one of the major causes of constipation.

  1. When the body is dehydrated, it draws additional moisture from stool to be used elsewhere in the body. This makes stool hard and dry, and difficult to pass

  2. A lack of the electrolyte magnesium is another major cause of constipation. Sadly, most Americans don’t get enough magnesium in their diet. Many doctors now recommend that their patients take a magnesium supplement 

Conclusion, dehydration in the elderly

Properly interpreting the symptoms of dehydration in the elderly can be challenging. Their dehydration symptoms can often be viewed as a part of the aging process.

However, dehydration can turn into a serious medical condition when not addressed properly.

Educating seniors and long term care givers helps in preventing the development of serious medical complications. Stay hydrated by drinking water and other non-caffeinated beverages.

(Return from Dehydration in the Elderly to Chronic Dehydration Symptoms)

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