Could hydration levels influence cognitive function?

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Dehydration can cause headaches and several physiological issues, and older adults are most at risk of experiencing it. Does it also affect cognitive function, however? And might overhydration also affect mental performance?

(O)ne segment of the population is particularly susceptible to dehydration: older adults.

“As we age, our water reserves decline due to reductions in muscle mass, our kidneys become less effective at retaining water, and hormonal signals that trigger thirst and motivate water intake become blunted,” explains Hilary Bethancourt, Ph.D., from the Pennsylvania State University College of Health and Human Development in State College.

Older adults also have a higher risk of cognitive impairment. Are their hydration levels and their cognitive performance linked in any way? Bethancourt and colleagues set out to answer this question in a new study. Their findings now appear in the European Journal of Nutrition.

In particular, the researchers saw that women appeared to display poorer cognitive performance when they were underhydrated. The same applied when they were overhydrated.

“A trend toward lower scores on [one of the cognitive function tests] among women who were categorized as either underhydrated or overhydrated was the most prominent finding that remained after we accounted for other influential factors,” explains Bethancourt.

The test that those who were overhydrated or underhydrated performed the worst in was “the test of attention, processing speed, and working memory,” she says.

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