By Karrie Osborn
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, October/November 2005.
In their search for the fountain of youth, the age-crazed have dwindled fortunes and even tried bizarre “treatments,” all in the name of perpetuity. The irony is that the best age-defying elixir we have is as accessible as our kitchen faucet.
Water is the time-borne tonic designed to nurture, heal, strengthen, and replenish our bodies. Used as an external application, it can not only cleanse the physical body but envelope it as a powerfully therapeutic tool. But it’s the internal application of water through ingestion that invigorates the body at its most basic cellular level. For the elderly, it’s this process that can stave off disease and disintegration of the body’s systems, potentially adding time back on the clock.
The human body is primarily a vessel of water — more than 60 percent of total body weight for young adults, 50 percent for the elderly.1,2 Everything about us relies on water. The magnificent processes of the brain are fueled by its 85 percent water content.3 The lungs couldn’t properly respirate without their 90 percent water content.4 Even the form and structure of bone tissue is dependent on water (22 percent).5 In fact, all our systems and tissues are reliant on the life-giving properties of water.
“No life processes are possible without water,” says Majid Ali, M.D., author of Integrative Nutritional Medicine. “All cells contain microchannels of water that make possible the traffic of materials and information among cells. In brain cells, water is essential for nerve impulses to be generated and transmitted. In heart muscles, it makes it possible for them to contract — and so let the heart beat. In the bowel, water allows digestive and absorptive functions. In liver cells, it catalyzes all detoxification processes. In the kidneys, it carries toxins into the urine. In the cartilage, it protects the ends of bones in a joint — and so prevents arthritis.”6
Many have paralleled the human need for water to the automobile engine’s need for oil. “Denying yourself optimal supplies of water accelerates the aging of the body just as failing to replenish and change oil regularly accelerates the aging of an automobile engine,” write William Holloway and Herb Joiner-Bey in their book, Water: The Foundation of Youth, Health, and Beauty. “Negligence leads to unpleasant and untimely long-term consequences.”7
When things are working as they should, “adequate water supplies within the cell ensure such vital processes as efficient functioning of DNA and messenger RNA, as well as the maintenance of the form and functions of structural proteins and enzymes,”8 Holloway and Joiner-Bey write.
Water is so important to our bodies, that while we can go weeks without food, it takes only a few days without water before we die from dehydration. Maintaining a balance between what we take in and what we put out is key. But that’s often easier said than done, as up to 12 cups of water is lost each day through perspiration, tears, urine, respiratory exhalation, and other avenues, even without heat or exercise thrown into the mix.9 Replenishing that fluid is critical to maintaining balance in the body. And therein lies the problem, especially for seniors.
Fighting Against Us
As we age, the body’s reliance on water becomes increasingly important for overall health. Yet, just at that point in life when we need the nurturing effects of water most, our bodies start betraying us. First, our thirst sensation becomes impaired or slow to respond with age, sometimes failing to trigger a reaction even at the most critical stages of dehydration.
A study comparing the sense of thirst between elderly men (67 to 75 years old) and younger men (20 to 31 years old) found that even though the older men registered greater dehydration symptoms (including plasma solutes and sodium concentration) they were less thirsty and drank less water after a 24-hour deprivation than the younger men. Researchers found the older men also didn’t drink enough water to dilute their urine and plasma to the levels they were before being dehydrated, resulting in a subsequent and cumulative deficit.10
If impaired thirst sensation wasn’t enough, then we factor in that an older body is already working at a level of water deficit. With age comes a decrease in muscle mass and the subsequent 75 percent water content that muscle contains. Add to that cellular changes, a confusion between hunger and thirst, less efficient kidney function, fear of incontinence, a decrease in the amount of food consumed (hence a loss of water content derived from that food), and the dehydrating side effects of pharmaceuticals and the elderly population has a lot of obstacles to overcome in reaching and maintaining proper hydration.
Robert M. Russell, professor of medicine and nutrition at Tufts University in Boston, says with all these obstacles, older adults “have to consciously think of drinking more and keeping well-hydrated.”11 That’s why he and his colleagues from the Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging devised a new food guide pyramid specifically for adults over 70.
To make sure seniors were aware of their fluid needs, Russell’s group revised the food guide to include water as the pyramid’s new first tier — recommending eight, 8-ounce glasses per day.
Unfortunately, when water deficits do occur in an older body, the effects are more long-term; some even irreversible.
“In its struggle for survival, the body is designed to change metabolic processes to compensate for deficits in nutritional intake,” Holloway and Joiner-Bey write. “If we fail to eat healthy foods and drink adequate amounts of pure water, the body will compensate to the best of its ability in order to survive.”12 That means without the right amounts of nutrients, the body will redirect resources away from their job of maintaining youth and vigor.
“These resources are shifted away from mechanisms that increase longevity, toward those that increase the odds for short-term survival. As a result, free radical damage proliferates, cell and tissue structure is compromised and not as well maintained, metabolic residues and debris accumulate more rapidly within cells, and the process of aging accelerates.”13
When dehydration does set in, it can move quickly. Cognitive function might offer the first clues to onset. “Dehydration to 2.7 percent body weight loss by heat exposure or exercise has been shown to significantly decrease alertness, concentration, tracking performance, and short-term memory and increase tiredness and headaches in healthy young adults,”14 say researchers Patrick Ritz, M.D., and Gilles Berrut, M.D.
Without enough water, Russell says, especially in warmer climates, an elderly person’s blood pressure can plummet dangerously low, blood clots can form and block vessels, kidney function can be diminished resulting in toxic concentrations of drugs, and constipation can become chronic.15
Unfortunately, the dehydration problem is growing unchecked. Case in point comes from researchers WenYen Juan, Ph.D., and Peter Basiotis, Ph.D., who found that “one in three Americans over the age of 60 may not be consuming enough total water.”16 Compared with other segments of the population, “older adults ... are most vulnerable to dehydration,”17 they say.
And in emergency rooms around the country, dehydration is one of the most frequent causes of hospitalization for people over 65, costing the Medicare system an estimated $450 million annually.18 When the dehydration problem is not addressed, it can turn bad very quickly. This was horribly exemplified by the heat wave that hit Europe in 2003 when approximately 35,000 deaths were reported, most of them elderly deaths attributed to dehydration.
What to Do? Drink Up
There’s really only one solution to thwart dehydration and keep the body from aging prematurely. Drink plenty of water. According to Dr. Ali, water is the “simplest, safest, cheapest, and single most effective therapy for preserving cellular and matrix oxygen homeostasis.”19 Primarily, he says, the difference between a young cell and an aged cell is that the aged cell is dehydrated and shrunken. Water is the key, he says.
“Water is the best cell energizer and resuscitator. Water is the best tissue detoxicant. It is the best diuretic. It is the best enhancer of enzyme functions of energy, detoxification, digestive, and neurotransmitter systems. And it is the best antidote for acidotic stress.”20
Michael Lam, M.D., author of The Five Proven Secrets in Longevity, says the key to drinking enough water is to spread your intake throughout the day. “Do not drink more than four glasses within any given hour,” he says. Also, “limit your intake during mealtime as too much liquid can dilute the digestive enzymes in the stomach.”21 Finally, he says, the best time to drink water is 30 minutes before a meal or two and a half hours after.
In addition to what we do know about water as an integral part of aging healthfully, it’s what we don’t know that may offer the greatest opportunities. For example, these are the correlations already proven: Good hydration reduces the risk of urolithiasis, constipation, and exercise asthma, and is associated with a reduction in urinary tract infections, hypertension, fatal coronary heart disease, venous thromboembolism, and cerebral infarct.22
What if we could prove that disease starts at the level of a once-healthy cell compromised by dehydration? What if we found that some of our most insidious diseases could be sidestepped if we only rethought our drinking regimens? Or that maintaining a hydration balance or even overload could nourish the body at a cellular level and ward off the traditional effects of aging?
What we do know today is that there’s really no way around the fact that adequate water intake is imperative for good health. “Optimal cell function demands optimal cell hydration,” write Holloway and Joiner-Bey. “As the most abundant constituent of life on all levels, water is an intimate partner and participant in every biochemical reaction that occurs within every cell and tissue. We dare not neglect a substance that is so critical to our well-being.”23
Author’s Note: It’s important to note that making a significant change to dietary or exercise regimens should come under the advice of a healthcare professional. When increasing water intake, the above is especially true for those with cardiac, renal, and/or kidney problems.