Water works: Hydration vital for health as we age

Water works: Hydration vital for health as we age
BODY OF WATER: Fluids are vital to our overall health and performance. Picture: iStock

As we get older, getting enough water is more important than ever, says Margaret Jennings.

AS you get older, the percentage of body water in proportion to your weight decreases and your risk of dehydration increases - and what’s more, you become less able to tune into whether you are thirsty or not, as your brain is less efficient at receiving the message.

What you may not be so aware of either, is that when you don’t take enough fluids, you can feel tired, confused, crampy, constipated, dizzy, unable to concentrate and have parched tired-looking skin – without fully realising why.

While at birth your body is more than 70% water, by the time you reach age 60 - with decreasing muscle mass - that proportion goes down to 46% in women and 52% in men.

Although we may be gulping down plenty of cups of caffeine with our family and friends, that’s not sufficient, unfortunately. Caffeine drinks are mild diuretics, which means they make you urinate more, so you need to increase your intake of water if you experience any signs of dehydration, says the Health Service Executive on their website. Throughout the day we also may get extra fluid from water-rich foods such as salads, fruit, soups and stews, if they are part of our diet, but it’s generally agreed that we must top up with water, regardless.

While your circumstances dictate how much water you should drink, the general advice from the European Food and Safety Authority for those of us who reside in a moderate climate and partake in normal physical activity, is that women should drink about 1.6 litres of water a day and men about 2 litres.

Here are some reasons why we need to watch our intake, as we age:

OUR SKIN: Even if only for vanity’s sake, we need to keep gulping throughout the day. Dehydrated skin looks somewhat ‘deflated’ and lacks vitality and radiance, just like dehydrated people do, says Dublin-based consultant dermatologist, Rosemary Coleman. “When the skin gets very dried out it gets scaly and it also repairs more slowly if cut or injured. It also doesn’t look very nice to see scaly, dry, flaky skin - very common on women’s legs as we age,” she says.

Rosemary says she can tell from looking at her older clients’ skin if they are dehydrated and although she recommends drinking 2 litres of water a day, it’s not known how long it takes skin to recover.

She herself is extremely conscious of staying hydrated throughout the day: “Drinking water is all about establishing a habit; willpower goes by the wayside after a few enthusiastic days. No one has to remind themselves to wash their teeth because they have the habit.

“I automatically fill a 1.5-litre bottle with filtered, room temperature water every morning. If it isn’t gone by lunchtime, I know I’ll be groggy with poorer concentration, but my body will often perceive this as hunger and crave sugar, when in fact it’s simply water that I need. I then try to drink a few more glasses as the day goes on. I feel so much better when well hydrated.”

OUR BRAIN: Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology published their discovery last month that the loss of body water (dehydration) causes part of the brain to swell. Using a brain imaging technique called fMRI neuroimaging they also showed that dehydration causes nerve signalling to intensify, and monotonous tasks to become harder.

Their findings add to the increasing evidence that when we are dehydrated the effects extend all the way into our brain, to temporarily change its shape, and alter our focus of attention in doing tasks such as monotonous manual labour, causing us to make mistakes, says Professor Billy O’Connor, head of teaching and research physiology at the University of Limerick Graduate Entry Medical School.

“The brain shrinks with age. However, the link between this shrinkage and the loss of water is not clear. Having said that, water balance is vital for normal brain function,” he tells Feelgood.

OUR PERFORMANCE: Thirst is not a great indicator of hydration, as you may already be dehydrated before you notice your thirst cues, points out consultant dietician Paula Mee.

Hydration is crucial for health and performance too, whether that’s on the golf course or in the workplace, she says. “A mere 2% loss in body weight through dehydration is enough to impair performance. Other signs of dehydration include headache, dizziness, cramps, constipation and nausea, impaired cognition or acute confusion, or falling. And it is linked with frequent emergency hospitalisation in the very old.”

But what if you just can’t stand drinking water? Paula has some suggestions to liven up those litres to sip throughout the day:

“Add sprigs of fresh herbs to your water bottle infuser, or into a large jug. Use the handle of a wooden spoon to bruise leaves and release their flavour but don’t pulverise the herbs or you will be left with bits in your water,” she advises. “Any citrus fruit combo is good too, such as slices of oranges, lemons and limes. If you are using a large table jug cover it and it will refrigerate for up to three days.”

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