Older men less able to regulate body temperature and hydration levels than young men

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Our ability to regulate body temperature and keep our bodies from becoming dehydrated declines as we get older.

In a new study, researchers found that older men were less able to regulate body temperature and hydration levels than young men.

The research was conducted by a team at the University of Ottawa.

The finding improves our understanding of the relation between temperature regulation and dehydration.

It also can help scientists to better tailor strategies for managing both body temperature regulation and hydration during heat exposure in older adults.

For example, because of reductions in thirst and our ability to preserve body fluid, as we age, we may require more frequent reminders to drink water during work in the heat or during heatwaves.

Exercise, especially when performed in a hot environment, exposes the body to heat stress, which causes body temperature to increase.

In these situations, we rely on sweating to help remove heat from the body and prevent continued rises in body temperature, which may increase the risk of heat-related illness or injury (such as heat stroke).

However, prolonged sweating can cause too much fluid to be lost from the body. Unless the person drinks water or a sports drink, this can lead to dehydration.

Dehydration also reduces the volume of circulating blood and increases the blood’s salt content.

Not only does dehydration make our mouths dry and make us want to drink water, but it also impacts the regulation of body temperature.

When we become dehydrated, we sweat less and, as a result, lose less heat and become less able to cool the body.

While this can be disadvantageous to regulating body temperature, these adjustments limit further fluid losses and slow the rate of dehydration.

Thus, our body’s response to dehydration acts to balance the body’s fluid and temperature regulatory needs.

Until recently, however, our understanding of the effects of dehydration on body temperature regulation came primarily from studies conducted in young adults.

Dehydration did not reduce heat loss or increase body temperature in older adults during exercise. At first glance, this seems like a beneficial response.

However, this meant that older adults did not attempt to adjust the rate of sweat loss to prevent further dehydration.

As a result, they experienced greater strain on the heart as evidenced by a more pronounced increase in heart rate compared to younger men.

A previous study shows that as we age, our body responds less efficiently to dehydration, and some have suggested that this is due to an impaired ability of the body to “sense” increases in salt levels in the blood (i.e. lack of water) that would normally trigger thirst and drinking.

Since the reduction in sweat rate during dehydration is beneficial for reducing fluid loss, the team reasoned that reduced sensitivity to elevated blood osmolality (which is a measure of the saltiness of the blood) may also explain the blunted effect of dehydration on heat loss and body temperature regulation in older adults during exercise in the heat.

To evaluate this hypothesis, the research group had young and older men perform an exercise in the heat. Before exercise, blood salt content was increased artificially by giving them infusions of saline (saltwater).

The participants performed the exercise in a device called a whole-body direct calorimeter, which precisely tracks the amount of heat lost from the entire body, which is caused by increases in sweating and blood flow to the skin.

The team found that, in contrast to young adults, the regulation of body temperature in older adults was not influenced by increases in the saltiness of the blood.

Less efficient regulation of body temperature and hydration status are thought to contribute to the increased risk of mild (e.g. heat exhaustion) and severe (e.g., heat stroke) heat-related injuries as well as adverse heart problems experienced by older adults during heat stress, such as during occupational work in the heat (e.g., electrical utilities, construction) or in their homes/communities during heatwaves.

Commenting on the study, the team says future work should examine the effect of reduced blood volume (termed hypovolemia) on sweating in older adults.

One author of the study is Robert Meade.

The study is published in the Journal of Physiology.

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