My friend recently returned from a family vacation to find her mom in bad shape. She was confused and looking unwell and my friend was alarmed.
Her mother was in a very nice assisted living facility. She had support in her care but she had deteriorated over the ten days that my friend was away. It took some time to pinpoint the cause of the decline. And thank goodness it was reversible.
The cause of deterioration? A lack of water.
And it wasn’t that she didn’t have access to water. It was that those around her were not giving importance to water consumption.
The Importance of Water for Brain Function
Each cell in the brain requires a tremendous amount of energy to function properly. Brain cells are sending information to other cells in your body so that they can do what they are supposed to do. Every movement you make, whether voluntary (like walking) or involuntary (like your heart beating) starts in your brain. The brain is sending signals 24/7 to keep things running smoothly.
Your brain cells are also producing hormones that have an impact on overall health. The hypothalamus in the brain controls the hormones that affect and protect your body.
These vital activities require energy. And water provides that energy to the brain.
Our brain just works better when it is well-hydrated.
Well-hydrated brains function faster, with more clarity and greater creativity.
But the brain has no way to store water, so it is important to maintain hydration throughout the day.
Since we lose water through breathing and sweating, when you wake up in the morning you will be starting the day with a water deficit. So drink a glass of water to rehydrate.
The Impact of Dehydration
As my friend realized, the impact of dehydration can be significant.
Researchers have found that a lack of water has a big impact on our brain.
Individuals in a British study exercised in sweat-inducing suits to reduce the hydration level of the body. After 90 minutes of sweat-inducing exercise, the researchers found that the brain tissue had shrunk away from the skull. The change in brain size was equivalent to one year of aging.
Clearly our level of hydration affects our brain tissue.
A lack of hydration also leads to difficulties with memory and staying focused. And this can become a vicious cycle.
In the case of my friend’s mom, it wasn’t because people weren’t caring for her that she became dehydrated. But the people with her were not consciously encouraging her to drink water.
As you age, you lose your thirst trigger. Your body no longer tells you that it is thirsty.
And if you layer on top of that the memory loss associated with dementia, you can see how you might forget to drink.
Dehydration, even slight dehydration, adds to confusion and short-term memory loss. It is easy to forget whether or not you have had anything to drink.
And you have a perfect storm for a continued slide in health.
Prolonged dehydration will have an effect on brain cell size, shrinking the brain. It will also reduce the body’s ability to flush toxins from the system.
We know that many of the toxins in our environment can easily pass the blood brain barrier. Dehydration removes the body’s ability to flush these toxins and can lead to inflammation of brain tissue.
Dehydration and Dementia
If you have someone in your life struggling with dementia, it is important to keep an eye on their hydration levels.
The confusion already associated with dementia plus the loss of a thirst trigger means your mom or dad will not necessarily feel thirsty. This can lead to a negative spiral of increasing confusion and poor health outcomes.
Encourage them to have a water bottle or large tumbler at hand so that they can easily consume water. You may want to add slices of cucumber or mint leaves to the water to make it more enjoyable to drink.
Also, think about how you can make it easier for them to drink. Your mom or dad may have difficulty holding onto or controlling a glass. Consider a water bottle but make sure the top is easy to open. I personally like the ones with a straw inside. This allows you to control water flow and it doesn’t pour out on your face if you misjudge the angle when you are drinking.
A water bottle is also easier to carry around. But you do need to make sure it is getting washed on a regular basis.
Your mom or dad will also need to have encouragement to drink their water. When you are with them, keep it top of mind. You may also want to leave notes in easy-to-see places to remind them. There are electronic reminders on phones or day clocks that can be set to send them a reminder.
If you have trouble getting your mom or dad to drink water, you may want to consider high water content food. Broth-based soups, apples, oranges, grapes and watermelon are great options.
And finally, consider your own water consumption. Modeling good behaviour can go a long way to encouraging your mom or dad to drink water.
Many times, aging adults feel like they are being treated like children by their own children. It is important to help your mom or dad retain their dignity even as you express concern for their health.
If they feel like they are being harassed over their water consumption, it could lead to push-back. So, make sure that you are drinking enough water and that your mom or dad sees you doing it.
Not only will it help them model new habits but it will be very good for your brain too!
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Nicole has trained hundreds of professional and family caregivers who have touched the lives of thousands of individuals living with a cognitive impairment. Nicole also holds a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, a Master’s in Law from Queen’s University specializing in Negotiations and is a Certified Professional Consultant on Aging.