Drinking water is especially important as we age

Along with the other indignities and inconveniences, our bodies present to us as we age, dehydration gradually becomes a bigger issue than in our youth. Studies are starting to show that as our bodies get older, water becomes more and more crucial to keeping everything functioning as it should, all as we apparently—ironically?—lose the ability to feel thirst in the same way. Here’s what you need to know to stay hydrated and healthy.

Why is Water so Important?

First, some facts. We should all know by now that water is a crucial aspect of our body’s natural processes. Hydration is vital for keeping electrolytes balanced and maintaining blood volume, as well as aiding in digestion, transportation of nutrients, and kidney function. Water also helps with temperature regulation and even brain function.

Fit older couple drink bottle of waterBecause water is so essential to almost every metabolic function, even mild dehydration can lead to an array of problems. It can cause fatigue, irritability, dizziness, headaches, muscle cramps, dry mouth, confusion, or a decrease in cognitive function. The worst part is it’s not even that hard to become dehydrated. Fluid (up to 80 ounces) is lost throughout the day as sweat, urine, in the removal of other bodily waste, and even when we exhale. So any time our body uses more water than we consume, we are officially dehydrated.

The Bad News

Even though experts have trouble settling on any set amount of water to consume to stay properly hydrated, most sources agree that whatever you’re drinking, it’s probably not enough. One study in 2015 found that between 20% and 30% of older adults are chronically dehydrated, and adults older than 65 have the highest hospital admission rates for dehydration, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Woman with headache from dehydrationOne of the reasons it is so hard to stay properly lubricated is that as we age our ability to sense thirst diminishes. Scientists don’t fully understand why, but sometime over the age of 60 our hypothalamus—which is the area of the brain that monitors hydration and salt levels in the body—either stops sending as many signals for us to feel thirst or the signal gets dampened.

At the same time, because our whole body functions less effectively as we age, our need for water increases after the age of 60. Kidneys gradually lose their ability to preserve water by concentrating the waste into urine, so more water is expelled with every trip to the bathroom.  Our digestive system suffers from a similar problem, so it also needs added water in order to keep things moving as they should. Additionally, as muscle mass decreases and fat increases, our body is less able to store water.

External factors also add to this potential perfect dehydration storm. Commonly used over-the-counter and prescription medications, such as antihistamines, laxatives and blood pressure medications, can also contribute to fluid loss. 

How Much Should I Drink?

Glasses of waterThe “eight glasses a day” standard—which has been promoted on morning news shows and in high school health classes for as long as we can remember—is a good rule of thumb, but is probably closer to providing a typical body with the minimum amount of water that it needs. One source stated that adult men should drink about ten cups of water per day (2500 ml) and women should drink roughly eight cups (2000 ml) per day, the difference being due to the discrepancy in muscle mass. Another site recommended that all adults consume at least 64 ounces of non-caffeinated fluids per day. The National Council on Aging recommends that you drink according to a formula that takes your body weight, multiplies it by 1/3, and that’s how many ounces you need. Then, of course, if it’s hot outside or you are exerting yourself more than usual, that number will need to increase.

A good test is to check the color of your urine. If it is clear or pale yellow, then you’re good. If it is dark yellow or even closer to brown then you are definitely going to need to up your water intake.

The Good News

While all of this sounds pretty damning, dehydration is one health problem that is relatively easy to fix. Thankfully, clean drinking water is an accessible commodity in most places, which is something we should never take for granted. So the trick is just building adequate hydration into your daily routine (she says, like that’s easy or something.)

Because water is boring and the most tangible reward for drinking enough tends to be more trips to the bathroom, it can be difficult to establish good habits. However, the key is to not use thirst as your primary motivator, because most doctors agree that by the time you recognize thirst, you’re already well on your way to dehydration.

Shena Jaramillo MS, RD says, “Many people associate hydration with thirst. This is actually the worst way to determine if you are properly hydrated. When one feels thirsty, this is actually an indicator we are already dehydrated. Many people associate thirst as the only reminder that they need to hydrate, which is where some of the problems with drinking enough water comes in.”

Glass of water with fresh lemon and mint in itInstead, try to couple drinking a glass of water with a task that you do multiple times a day. Some people swear by keeping water near them at all times, as a visible reminder to take a sip every once in a while (I call it my “emotional support water bottle”). Some prefer to set regular alarms on their phone or watch to remind them, and there are even smart water bottles that can pair with those devices to keep track of how much you’ve had. Sometimes it’s easier to drink more water if you add fresh fruit to infuse it with a little flavor and increase its appeal. If you drink more frequently and consistently throughout the day, your body will feel better, and you won’t end up chugging a whole bunch right before bed, leading to even more half-conscious trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

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