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Tests for dehydration in elderly people are unreliable, study finds

PUBLISHED: 00:04 11 March 2019 | UPDATED: 16:15 13 March 2019

The University of East Anglia (UEA) looked at ways carers assessed dehydration in older people across Norfolk and Suffolk. Picture: Denise Bradley

The University of East Anglia (UEA) looked at ways carers assessed dehydration in older people across Norfolk and Suffolk. Picture: Denise Bradley

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Tests that are being used by care workers to detect dehydration among the elderly are not reliable, experts say.

Simple checks aimed at checking for the condition - such as sunken eyes, the tightness of a person’s skin or asking if they are thirsty - do not accurately diagnose the condition, a study found.

Experts from the University of East Anglia (UEA) looked at the way carers assessed dehydration in 188 older people in 56 care homes across Norfolk and Suffolk.

They compared the results with blood tests to tell whether a person was suffering from dehydration.

Lead researcher Dr Lee Hooper, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “Low-intake dehydration happens when people don’t drink enough fluids to stay healthy, and is very common in older people, including those living in care homes.

“It happens for all sorts of reasons, such as weakened thirst sensation - which happens as we age, not remembering to drink or difficulties fetching, carrying and reaching drinks.

“Standard tests for dehydration include looking at the eyes, skin, inside the mouth or feeling under the arm to check for dryness, measuring for a drop in blood pressure, or asking if someone feels thirsty, headachey or tired.”

Lead author, Dr Diane Bunn, from UEA’s School of Health Sciences, added: “When we analysed the results of all the simple tests, we found that none of them were able to accurately identify people with dehydration, and we recommend that they are withdrawn from practice.

“Whilst blood tests are the most accurate way of telling if someone is dehydrated, this is expensive and not easily done in care homes unless a doctor orders the test.

“We really need an inexpensive easy-to-do test for dehydration in older people, and one which works.”

Caroline Abrahams, charity director of Age UK, said: “While we know there are many dedicated care workers who provide a good standard of care for our loved ones in care homes, we need to ensure that staff are trained to help older people drink enough, and be able to recognise and act on the warning signs of dehydration before it becomes a real threat to their health.”

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