COLLEGE STATION — Drinking eight glasses of water a day may help keep the doctor away, especially during the cold and flu season.
Dehydration is often considered a problem only during hot summer months. But drinking plenty of fluids also is critical during cold weather, particularly for the elderly.
According to a report from the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA), dehydration among the elderly is a serious and costly medical problem. It ranks as one of the most frequent diagnoses among hospitalized patients on Medicare, costing some $450 million annually. And about half the people over age 65 who are hospitalized with illnesses accompanied by dehydration die within a year of admission.
About 25 percent to 30 percent of all cases of serious dehydration result from pneumonia and flu, which peak during the winter months, reports the HCFA. When a person has a fever or any kind of respiratory illness, the need for fluids increases.
“Drinking the recommended eight glasses of water a day is often a step to staying healthy neglected by people of all ages,” said Dr. Bethann Witcher-Byers, nutrition specialist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.
The benefits of drinking water or fluids is often overlooked, Witcher-Byers said. When people get older, they have lower levels of saliva and digestive juices. Water makes swallowing food easier and helps in digestion. It also makes kidneys function better. A warm glass of water with lemon in the morning acts as a mild laxative for some people. In addition, water rarely interferes with absorption of other nutrients in foods.
Water can come from any beverage — juice, coffee, tea, milk or soft drinks — as well as soup.
“But caffeine in coffee, soft drinks and tea boosts your body’s water output, offsetting some of the benefits of taking in the fluid,” Witcher-Byers said. “The sugar in regular soft drinks is an added source of calories you may not need. Plain water, unsweetened fruit juices and low-fat milk are better choices.”
For those who want to try something a little different, fruit juice mixed with club soda or seltzer water makes a refreshing carbonated drink, she said. And a twist of lemon or lime will make plain water more appealing.
“Seniors are less likely to feel thirsty when their bodies need water because the sense of thirst declines with age,” Witcher-Byers said. “So it’s important that older people drink plenty of water or other fluids whether they feel thirsty or not.”
The elderly also are more likely to be on medication which can dry the body out, she said. The lack of fluids combined with medication makes them more vulnerable to decreased urine output, parched mucous membranes, and lightheadedness — all symptoms of dehydration.
Sometimes people intentionally drink less to avoid going to the bathroom as often, she said. However, drinking plenty of fluids is important to help your body flush out wastes and is worth a few more trips to the bathroom.
“If you are a caregiver or in charge of planning diets for older adults, remember to include an adequate amount of fluid,” Witcher- Byers said. “It’s also a good idea to monitor fluid intake and output. This will help prevent dehydration and associated problems such as hypotension (abnormally low blood pressure), elevated body temperature, nausea, vomiting, constipation and decreased urine output.”
Drinking plenty of fluids is a recommendation that should be followed by everyone, not just the elderly, she said. High temperatures during summer months cause fluid losses through sweat. When the weather’s cold, heaters take the moisture out of indoor air, which leads to chapped lips as well as dry skin and mucous membranes.