How staying hydrated can save your life

Dizziness, fatigue and dry mouth can all be signs that you aren’t drinking enough water.

Feeling thirsty is the body’s natural defence against dehydration, but as we age, our thirst signals can diminish and put us at risk of severe dehydration - especially on hot days or after exercise.

By Carolyn Tate

“Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.” – Dr Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, discoverer of vitamin C.

Water is essential to life, and as we get older, its importance can become even more apparent – especially when we’re not getting enough. Staying hydrated is not just about quenching your thirst on a hot day; it's also a critical component of our health and wellbeing and something it’s important to be aware of.

The role of hydration in our body

Water makes up 50-75% of our bodies, so the joke about humans basically being a cucumber with anxiety isn’t far off. And that large amount of water plays various essential roles, from regulating our body temperature to facilitating digestion, and carrying nutrients to cells.

As we get older, our bodies start to change in ways that can affect our hydration levels.

We may not notice feeling thirsty as much as we used to, our kidneys can be less efficient, and we may take medications that have diuretic effects, all making staying hydrated a bit more challenging.

There's a joke the human body contains so much water that we are basically just cucumbers with anxiety - but deydration is no laughing matter. The average male body has up to 40 litres of water, which differs on any given day depending on how much you drink, sweat or wee. Hydration explains why our body weight also can fluctuate by about 2 kg each day.

Dehydration and its consequences

We get dehydrated when our body loses more fluids than it takes in.

You can, of course, become dehydrated at any age, but the risks go up as we get older, with more serious consequences looming. Signs you may be seriously dehydrated include frequent, irregular urination; dark urine; and dry lips and tongue.  

Some dangers of being dehydrated include:

Urinary tract infections (UTIs)

Studies have shown a direct link between dehydration and an increased risk of urinary tract infections in older adults. If you’re drinking less water, you urinate less often, leading to more concentrated urine staying in your bladder for longer.

This can create an opportunity for bacteria to get into the lining of your bladder, leading to infections. UTIs have also been linked to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke, so dehydration in this instance can have very serious consequences. 

Kidney function

The kidneys play a crucial role in filtering waste products from the blood and maintaining our fluid balance. If we’re dehydrated, it can strain the kidneys and potentially lead to kidney dysfunction, or even kidney failure.

This can mean a stay in hospital and medication, or even short-term dialysis treatment. In many cases, your kidney function will return to normal over time, but sometimes kidney failure can lead to permanent damage like chronic kidney disease. 

Cognitive impairment

Dehydration can affect our cognitive function, including concentration and memory. Being dehydrated by just 2% has been shown to impair performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor, and immediate memory skills. And dehydration is also linked with accelerating any existing decline you may be experiencing from conditions such as dementia.

Older women are the most vulnerable group to this type of effect. But for all of us, staying properly hydrated is the best move to stay as sharp as possible, and maintaining optimal brain function.

Read more about cognitive impairment.

Increased risk of falls

This one might not be so obvious at first, but studies show people who are dehydrated fall more often than people who aren’t. In one UK study, it was found that 20% of older people admitted to hospital were found to be dehydrated. A lack of hydration can lead to low blood pressure, light-headedness and disorientation, which means we can fall more easily.  

Cardiovascular complications

Apart from the heart attack and stroke risk mentioned under UTIs, being dehydrated can also impact our cardiovascular health in other ways.

Dehydration can lead to reduced blood volume, which means your heart has to work harder to circulate your blood around your body, increasing the strain on your heart. This hard work can potentially cause heart palpitations, elevated heart rate, and low blood pressure.

How to prevent dehydration

Preventing dehydration is the best and easiest way to reduce your chances of any of these complications. Prevention is always better than a cure!

Try these practical tips for staying well-hydrated:

1. Drink water regularly: You knew that one already, didn’t you? Aim to drink water throughout the day, even if you don't feel thirsty. Our thirst perception can diminish with age, so get in the habit of being proactive about your water intake.

2. Monitor your urine colour: Dark yellow urine can be a sign of dehydration. Ideally, your urine should be light yellow or pale in colour.

3. Eat hydrating foods: Incorporate water-rich foods like fruits and vegetables into your diet as much as you can. These can contribute to your overall fluid intake, as well as having their own health benefits.

4. Limit dehydrating drinks: Alcohol and caffeinated drinks increase your urine output so try to limit them, but if you do have them, be sure to drink more water to counterbalance their effect.

5. Be mindful of medications: Some medications can have a diuretic effect, increasing the risk of dehydration. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have concerns about your medication's impact on your hydration levels.

6. Stay hydrated during exercise or on hot days: If you engage in physical activity, make sure to drink water before, during, and after your workout to replenish lost fluids. And if you live somewhere warm or tropical, make sure you’re getting enough water every day.

The information on this page is general information and should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Do not use the information found on this page as a substitute for professional health care advice. Any information you find on this page or on external sites which are linked to on this page should be verified with your professional healthcare provider.

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