How dehydration can lead to delirium and other health issues

Different drinks in glass jugs on white background. Ideas for summer cocktailsIt’s hot outside and it’s easy to get dehydrated. Our body is 50-65% water. The brain, which is 70% water, gets dehydrated just like your body. When it is dehydrated, neurotransmission—which is heavily dependent on water—is impaired, resulting in poor memory, concentration and impaired abstract thinking.

Dehydration can also result in delirium. Delirium is a mental disturbance that is exhibited by a new or worsening confusion, changes in one’s consciousness or by hallucinations. It has a sudden onset from hours to days. It can be reversed but it’s easier to prevent delirium than to reverse it.

When my mom was admitted to the hospital for a UTI (urinary tract infection), she developed delirium. A psychiatrist called me to report that my mom was exhibiting full-blown dementia. I had just spoken to Mom a day before and she sounded fine. I refused the offer of an antipsychotic drug for her, knowing well the high risk of putting an older adult on those drugs. (see Why you should throw away that antipsychotic drug prescribed for your loved one). As it turned out, my mom was severely dehydrated. After a couple days on a hydrating intravenous solution she returned to her normal self.

It’s important to learn the signs of dehydration in everyone, but especially in seniors and young children. The physical symptoms are usually clear: dry lips and mouth, no tears when crying, decreased urine output, sunken eyes, headache, lethargy, dark urine and extreme thirst. The mental symptoms are not as obvious, but can result in mental confusion, irritability and delirium.

Many older adults often limit their fluid intake because they may be incontinent or fear accidents. Those who have limited mobility may try to avoid another trip to the toilet. Individuals who have aphasia (inability to speak due to dementia or brain damage from  stroke, etc.) may not be able to express their thirst.

If you are a caregiver, and that includes caring for yourself!) here are some helpful guidelines:

  • Encourage and remind your care partner to drink.
  • Drinking healthy fluids is important as eating healthy foods. Water is the top choice, followed by milk, vegetable and fruit juices. Remember that juices contain a lot of sugar, both natural and added, so don’t overdo them. Soups are nourishing and hydrating but be aware of the sodium content. Avoid carbonated and caffeinated drinks which have a diuretic effect.
  • Serve liquids at a temperature that your care partner likes. Not everyone enjoys ice water.
  • Flavor water with lime or lemon.
  • Remind your care partner not to wait until s/he is thirsty. By then s/he is already dehydrated.
  • Serve juicy fruits such as watermelon, which contain lots of water.
  • Offer healthy popsicles as an addition to drinks and to those who refuse water.

The rule of thumb is to have 48 to 64 ounces of non-sweetened, non-artificially sweetened drinks. Hydration keeps the body in proper pH (how acidic or alkaline your body is) and protects it from getting dehydrated, which is a cause of inflammation and other kinds of imbalances. Dehydration can also contribute to urinary tract infections (UTIs).

The dangers of UTIs

Urinary tract infections are notorious for causing delirium and delusional behavior in the elderly. When younger people get a urinary tract infection, they typically experience painful urination, an urgent need to urinate, lower abdominal pain, back pain on one side, and fever and chills. However, an older adult might not experience those symptoms. As we get older our immune system changes and it responds differently to infection. Instead of pain symptoms, seniors with a UTI may show increased signs of confusion, agitation or withdrawal. In older adults with dementia, these behavioral changes may come across as part of that condition or signs of advanced aging. If the underlying UTI goes unrecognized and untreated for too long, it can spread to the bloodstream and become life-threatening. In fact, I have a dear friend who died from a UTI that quickly became septic.

Always: Keep the patient hydrated since urination can flush out unwanted bacteria from the urinary tract.

The next time your mind is muddled, drink a tall glass of water and notice the difference. Drink plenty of water, fresh juices, and herbal teas to stay hydrated, flush out toxins and enjoy mental clarity—in summer and all year round.

 


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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

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