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What Are Symptoms of Dehydration in Elderly People?

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Signs of Dehydration in Elderly People: Common Symptoms and Causes

Dry mouth, no energy, and feeling weak?

If you or an elderly loved one is experiencing dehydration, the symptoms are no funand can become dangerous. 

The good news is that knowing the symptoms of dehydration can help your elderly loved one recover from and prevent dehydration. 

Read on to learn more about: 

  • Signs and symptoms of dehydration in the elderly 

  • What to do when the elderly are dehydrated; and

  • Much more

Table of Contents

How Can You Tell if an Elderly Person Is Dehydrated?

It is sometimes difficult to see the signs and symptoms of dehydration in the elderly. 

They are often subtle and include:

  • Weak muscles

  • Having a dry mouth

  • The feeling of lethargy; and

  • More

Signs and Symptoms of Dehydration in Elderly People

Sadly, elderly patients can become severely dehydrated in a short amount of time. 

In the case of an elderly adult who appears dehydrated, it is essential to seek medical attention. Likewise, when your elderly parents or relatives are sick, you should be on the lookout for signs of dehydration. It only takes a minor illness to dehydrate them.

When determining if an older adult is properly hydrated, there are many signs to look for.

One of the most popular, urine, can tell you a lot about your hydration level — not only the amount but also the color. A person is well hydrated when urine is clear, while darker urine indicates dehydration. 

Another significant sign of dehydration? Thirst. While most adults are well acquainted with the sensation of thirst, some elderly people often ignore or do not notice this early symptom. 

Because of this, it's crucial to be on the lookout for other indicators, including:

  • Muscle weakness — During dehydration, the body loses electrolytes, including sodium, potassium, and chloride. Muscle weakness is among the unexpected symptoms of this.

  • Lethargy — If you are not adequately hydrated, you will feel tired and not function properly.

  • Dry mouth — When you do not hydrate properly, your body starts conserving fluid. That's why one of the first signs of dehydration is decreased salivation.  

  • Headaches or dizziness — Dehydration can temporarily cause the brain to contract; a dehydration headache and dizziness result from the brain pulling away from the skull.

  • Inability to sweat — You cannot sweat when you are dehydrated, so you do not get the benefits of sweat. Heatstroke and other serious issues can result if you cannot sweat. 

  • Low blood pressure — Your blood pressure decreases as the amount of water in your bloodstream decreases. Therefore, blood pressure will drop rapidly in cases of acute dehydration. 

  • Rapid heart rate — An increase in heart rate and/or palpitations are often symptoms of dehydration, which leads to plummeting electrolyte levels.

  • Fatigue —  Not drinking enough water will leave you with little energy to get through the day. 

  • Confusion — Dehydration leads to mild mental changes that worsen with each stage.

Causes of Symptoms of Dehydration in Older Adults 

As discussed above, dehydration often leads to poor health and medical outcomes. Therefore, it’s vital that caretakers and medical professionals know the common causes of dehydration in the elderly.

  • Heat exposure — Heat and humidity can cause more significant fluid loss from the body through sweating.

  • Illness — Fever, vomiting, and diarrhea can result in dehydration.

  • Mobility problems — An older adult with mobility problems may have difficulties getting water by themselves.

  • Underlying health conditions — Certain health conditions, such as diabetes and kidney disease can cause fluid loss.

  • Increased urination — There is the possibility that certain medications can cause increased urination, resulting in fluid loss. Diuretics and certain blood pressure medications are examples of medications that can cause increased urination.

Senior man drinking a glass of water

How Do You Treat Dehydration in the Elderly?

 Replacement of lost fluids and electrolytes is the most effective treatment for dehydration. 

Treatment for dehydration depends on factors such as:

  • Age

  • Severity; and

  • Cause

Let's examine some standard dehydration treatment options for the elderly.

Replace Lost Fluid     

Treatment for dehydration often involves replacing the fluids that have been lost.

For mild to moderate dehydration, drinking water or other fluids such as juice or broth is recommended. 

Along with drinking fluids for mild to moderate dehydration, you can also eat foods that are high in water, such as: 

  • Cucumbers

  • Watermelon

  • Strawberries; and

  • Grapes 

When dehydration is severe, the condition can cause a person to experience seizures and go into shock. In moderate to severe dehydration cases, intravenous (IV) rehydration may be required.

Replenish Electrolytes 

Electrolytes are involved in a wide variety of functions — their role is particularly crucial in maintaining hydration levels. 

The movement of sodium and potassium in and out of cells affects how much water our bodies retain or expel. It is these slightly charged particles that help carry electrical impulses around the body.    

When dehydrated, it is important to replenish electrolytes. 

You can replenish your electrolytes in many ways, including:

  • Drinking coconut water (without added sugar)
  • Consuming bananas

  • Eating dairy products

  • Eating avocados; and

  • Drinking waters infused with electrolytes

Hospitalization

A severe case of dehydration is a medical emergency and should be treated in a hospital.

    Dehydration is usually treated in one of two ways at the hospital: 

  1. Replenishment of water and electrolytes through IV therapy; or

  2. Oral rehydration therapy 

Senior woman drinking a glass of water

Symptoms of Dehydration in Seniors: Who Is at Risk?

Dehydration risk increases with age. What causes this? Many health and lifestyle conditions can result in low fluid levels in older adults, leading to dehydration. 

A few of these conditions include:

  • Lack of thirst — As we age, we experience a decrease in thirst sensation

  • A decline in total body fluid —The amount of fluid in our bodies begins to decrease with age, so as we age, our bodies have fewer water reserves available to them.

  • Aging kidneys — As we age, our kidneys gradually lose some of their ability to store water and concentrate urine.

  • Age-related health conditions — These are conditions common to older adults, such as diabetes, urinary incontinence, and Alzheimer's. 

The teams at Senior Services of America communities know that monitoring your elderly loved one for signs and symptoms of dehydration can be difficult - that's why we do it for them.

What Are the Side Effects of Dehydration in the Elderly? 

In the elderly, dehydration can be caused by several factors, as discussed above. 

Older adults are at significant risk of dehydration-related complications. It is common for older adults to struggle with dehydration without their caregivers or themselves realizing it. 

The elderly may experience some of the following side effects from dehydration.

Seizures

The body's concentration of … 

  • Sodium

  • Electrolytes

  • Minerals; and

  • Acid-base

 … decreases when it is dehydrated. 

Regular electrical messages in the body can become muddled if these are out of balance. In such a situation, involuntary muscle contractions may occur, and consciousness may be lost.

Kidney Problems

Dehydration can lead to the accumulation of wastes and acids in the body. It can also clog the kidneys with muscle proteins.     

When this happens, dehydration can cause:     

  • Urinary tract infections

  • Kidney stones; and 

  • Kidney failure

Heat Injury    

When you do not drink enough fluids when hot, you may end up with a heat injury. 

A heat injury can range in severity from: 

  • Mild heat cramps

  • Heat exhaustion; to

  • Potentially life-threatening heatstroke

Low Blood Volume Shock

Low blood volume shock is also known as hypovolemic shock

Suddenly losing a lot of blood or fluids can cause hypovolemic shock, which is extremely dangerous. 

Blood helps the body to: 

  • Hold body temperature steady

  • Forms blood clots; and 

  • Moves oxygen and nutrients to the cells

If the blood volume gets too low, the organs will not keep working.  

Neurological Symptoms

When water levels are too low, our brain cells cannot function properly, which can lead to cognitive problems.  

Some common cognitive problems from dehydration are: 

  • Brain Cell Function — The lack of water in the brain will cause the brain cells to wither, which will then impair the transport of oxygen, minerals, and other materials between the cells. The lack of water in the brain alters the structure of brain cells, ultimately leading to their degeneration.

  • Mental Effects — Lack of water affects the brain by causing confusion, mental fatigue, and an overall lack of energy.

  • Visuomotor and Psychomotor Functioning —  Reading or focusing on a computer screen can be difficult when there is insufficient water in the brain. The brain can also have difficulty controlling its movements and concentrating.

Extreme cases of dehydration can lead to:

  • Disorientation

  • Hallucinations; and

  • Death

Can You Treat Dehydration at Home?

In many cases of dehydration, it can be treated at home if it is not severe. 

As a caregiver, you can help prevent dehydration by doing the following: 

  1. First, make sure your loved one drinks plenty of water during the day, especially after meals and exercise.

  2. Place water in places where it is easily accessible.

  3. Make it easier for the older adult to get to the bathroom if they are worried that they won't make it.

You should also remember that drinking plenty of fluids and eating water-rich foods like fruits and vegetables is another way to prevent dehydration.  

Senior Services of America: Compassionate Care for You or Your Loved One

The teams at Senior Services of America communities encourage residents to remain as independent as possible and continue living meaningful and purposeful lives.

Our goal is to help residents stay engaged in life: 

  • Mentally

  • Physically; and 

  • Emotionally

We offer a positive residential environment that inspires and encourages our residents to reach their full potential.

Senior Services of America is dedicated to providing supportive services to help you as you navigate this next stage of life. 

Have further questions? Find your nearest community to speak to an advisor.

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Senior Services of America

800-689-0493

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