Dehydration is a serious concern in nursing homes for two reasons. First, it happens frequently. Many long-term care patients cannot adequately hydrate themselves, and nursing staff often neglect to help patients with hydration as frequently as needed. Second, the effects of dehydration can be critical for elderly individuals.
Learn about how dehydration impacts the aging brain and how to protect your loved one’s rights if they have been harmed in a nursing home or long-term care facility.
How Dehydration Harms the Brain
Dehydration may cause the following neurological conditions, especially in elderly patients and when dehydration is chronic.
When an individual is dehydrated, their body’s electrolyte balance becomes disrupted. This happens faster and more severely in elderly people, making it particularly dangerous. When an electrolyte imbalance occurs, the brain can experience an electrical disruption that results in a seizure.
Seizures are risky for nursing home patients because they can easily lead to a fall. Muscles will contract involuntarily, potentially causing fractures or broken bones in patients with brittle or calcium-deficient bones. Prolonged unconsciousness after a seizure must be treated at the emergency room.
Cerebral edema is the medical term for swelling of the brain. When electrolytes are poorly balanced, particularly in regards to sodium, cells inside the brain will swell and burst. Most often, cerebral edema that is caused by dehydration originates from loss of bodily fluids through vomiting, sweating, or diarrhea. Once cerebral edema is present, administering hydration must be done carefully in order to prevent further swelling and rupture of brain cells.
The brain is normally bathed in around 500 mL of cerebrospinal fluid to keep it soft and pliable inside the skull. When a person becomes dehydrated, their brain may actually physically shrink and pull away from the skull. This results in headaches, which can vary in intensity depending on how dehydrated a person is and their overall medical history.
Pain may be experienced all over the head or may be focused in one area, like with a migraine. It can be dull or sharp, and can be annoying or even debilitating. Over-the-counter headache medication may provide little relief. This change in brain size is generally temporary and the body begins producing a normal amount of cerebrospinal fluid when properly hydrated again.
Short-Term Memory Loss
Short-term memory loss can occur as soon as the brain begins to lose just 2% of its hydration. As the brain begins to shrivel due to lack of fluids, brain cells that are responsible for information retention begin to reduce in size and number. This is often exacerbated by medical conditions that are common in the elderly population, like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Cognitive decline caused by dehydration is usually reversible with treatment in young patients. Treatment is generally the careful administration of fluids and monitoring until the patient’s labs come back normal. However, elderly patients who have been chronically dehydrated may not bounce back as quickly or at all, and cognitive decline may be permanent for these individuals.
Even mild or moderate dehydration can cause irritability and mood changes, particularly in women. Anxiety, jitteriness, and nervousness are common for a patient who is chronically or severely dehydrated. It is believed that in addition to disrupting electrolyte balances in the brain, dehydration also impacts the brain’s ability to produce the correct amounts of dopamine and serotonin.
These chemicals are crucial to a person’s mental and emotional stability and without enough of them, patients may experience significant mood shifts and become quick to anger or difficult to console or cheer up. Many physicians will prescribe mood stabilizers and other psychotropic medications to treat these issues in elderly patients before examining and treating the root cause of the problem, which in many cases is ongoing or chronic dehydration.
Protect Your Elderly Loved One With the Help Of Mazow McCullough, PC
If your loved one is at risk in an abusive or neglectful nursing home, it’s important that you act quickly to protect their safety and patient rights. Dehydration is not only extremely uncomfortable for your elderly family member, it’s incredibly risky and may potentially even be fatal in some circumstances. If you suspect your loved one is chronically dehydrated in a nursing home, it’s critical to get help.
Contact us today for a consultation to discuss your loved one’s legal needs or to learn more about how a New Hampshire or Massachusetts nursing home abuse attorney can help your family. Dial our Salem, MA office at (978) 744-8000 or toll-free at (855) 693-9084.