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The Importance of Staying Hydrated for Healthy Aging

By Sherry Kahn August 22, 2020 Health and Fitness

Did you know that as we get older, we are more prone to dehydration no matter the weather? I started to notice this during moderate hikes and exercise when I hit my mid-50s.

There are a couple of physiological reasons for this:

Body Water Volume Decreases with Age

The body loses water as we age. At birth the body is more than 70% water. Until about age 40, the proportion of total body fluids to body weight is about 60% in men and 52% in women.

The difference between the genders is that men have greater muscle mass and lower body fat than women. Muscle cells contain more water than fat cells.

After age 60, with the loss of muscle and increase in fat in both genders, the proportion goes down to 52% in men and 46% in women.

In addition, the kidneys’ ability to remove toxins from the blood progressively declines with age. They require more water to do their job. Therefore, in addition to less total body fluids, older people lose more water to normal kidney function than do younger folks.

Thirst Sensitivity Diminishes

As we age, our thirst mechanism undergoes changes. Decades of research have identified the hypothalamus in the brain as the body’s primary thirst center. Neuroscientists from Brainfacts explain that the hypothalamus constantly monitors the blood’s concentration of sodium and other important substances.

It also receives inputs from blood vessel sensors that monitor volume and pressure. When the hypothalamus senses insufficient body fluid, it sends out a signal to drink. For reasons that scientists say aren’t yet clear, age tends to dampen this message from the brain.

Dehydration Causes

In addition to the effects of aging, dehydration can happen for many other reasons, including:

  • as a side effect of prescribed medications,
  • diarrhea,
  • excessive sweating,
  • loss of blood, and
  • diseases, such as diabetes.

Dehydration Symptoms

If you notice your mouth is dry and you’re tired, see what happens once you drink some purified water. If you immediately perk up, that’s feedback that you were dehydrated. Dehydration can range from mild to severe. Severe dehydration can be life-threatening.

If you develop severe diarrhea (with or without vomiting), fever, moderate diarrhea for 24 hours, bloody stool, or you can’t drink any liquids, get professional treatment as soon as possible.

Chronic dehydration may affect your organs and lead to kidney stones; increased cholesterol; constipation; liver, joint, and muscle damage, as well as impaired balance.

Mild to Moderate Dehydration Symptoms

  • Dry, sticky mouth
  • Sleepiness or tiredness
  • Dry skin
  • Headache
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Few or no tears when crying
  • Minimal urine
  • Dry, cool skin
  • Muscle cramps

Severe Dehydration Symptoms

  • Extreme thirst
  • Irritability and confusion
  • Sunken eyes
  • Dry skin that doesn’t bounce back when you pinch it
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing
  • No tears when crying
  • Fever
  • Little or no urination, and any urine color that is darker than usual
  • In serious cases, delirium or unconsciousness

Electrolyte Imbalance

Electrolyte imbalance often accompanies dehydration due to loss of minerals. Minerals take on a positive or negative charge, becoming electrolytes when they dissolve in body fluid. Electrolytes conduct electricity and move electrical signals throughout your body.

These charges are crucial to many functions that keep you alive, including the operation of the brain, nerves, and muscles, and the creation of new tissue. Each electrolyte plays a specific role in your body. You will notice that many of dehydration symptoms are related to depletion of specific electrolytes:

Important Electrolytes and Their Functions

  • Bicarbonate regulates the proper functioning of the heart and helps maintain a healthy pH.
  • Calcium is a key component of bones and teeth. It’s essential to the movement of nerve impulses and muscles, and contributes to blood clotting.
  • Chloride is essential to digestion and helps maintain a healthy pH.
  • Magnesium plays part in maintaining heart rhythm and regulating blood glucose levels. It enhances the immune system, contributes to nerve and muscle function, and is important for the production of DNA and RNA.
  • Phosphate is an electrolyte that strengthens the bones and teeth. It also helps cells produce the energy needed for tissue growth and repair.
  • Potassium regulates your heart and blood pressure and aids in transmitting nerve impulses. It is necessary for muscle contraction and contributes to bone health.
  • Sodium helps control fluids in the body, impacting blood pressure and is also necessary for muscle and nerve function.

Whether it is mild, moderate, or severe dehydration, the lost liquids in your body must be immediately replaced.

Best Hydration Options

The best solution for preventing dehydration is to drink purified water. Most sources say eight 8-ounce glasses. Eating lots of fresh vegetables and fruits also help hydrate the body and provides important nutrients, including minerals essential for electrolyte balance.

Also remember that you need to drink adequate healthy fluids even if you don’t feel thirst. You need to learn to drink “on command” rather than “on demand.”

Many athletes drink Gatorade or other sports drinks, which contain electrolytes. The problem is that those drinks are also typically high in sugar.

Coconut water is a far better fluid/electrolyte replacement option. I discovered coconut water at local farmer markets several years ago, where it was sold simply with a straw inserted into a whole coconut. Now it’s commercially produced.

Look for products that contain only coconut water not from concentrate, with no added sugar or other ingredients. During my recent desert sojourn, I found coconut water far more hydrating and energizing than plain water. I now routinely keep a few cartons in my refrigerator and drink it whenever plain water doesn’t do the trick for me.

I also just discovered bottled water enhanced with electrolytes. Look for both in your local health food store or large, progressive supermarket.

Do you drink enough liquids every day to stay hydrated year round? What are your favorite drinks? Have you tried coconut water or bottled water enhanced with electrolytes? Please join the conversation!

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The Author

Sherry Kahn, MPH, is a health educator, author and marketing communications consultant. A former UCLA Medical Center principal editor and Reuters medical journalist, Sherry’s career has taken her into all areas of the U.S. health system. Her most recent book is Surviving the U.S. Health System: Insurance, Providers, Well Care, Sick Care. She has presented at major conferences and made numerous media appearances, including on The View. Connect with Sherry at and

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