Not getting enough water is enough to make you feel sluggish and give you a headache, but a new Penn State study suggests it may also relate to cognitive performance.
The researchers investigated whether hydration levels and water intake among older adults was related with their scores on several tests designed to measure cognitive function. They found that among women, lower hydration levels were associated with lower scores on a task designed to measure motor speed, sustained attention, and working memory. They did not find the same result for men.
The findings were recently published in the European Journal of Nutrition.
“The study gives us clues about how hydration and related drinking habits relate to cognition in older adults,” said Hilary Bethancourt, a postdoctoral scholar in biobehavioral health and first author on the study. “This is important because older adults already face increased risk of cognitive decline with advancing age and are often less likely than younger adults to meet daily recommendations on water intake.”
Asher Rosinger, Ann Atherton Hertzler Early Career Professor in Global Health, said the researchers found similar results when the participants were overhydrated.
“We found a trend suggesting overhydration may be just as detrimental to cognitive performance as dehydration for older adults,” said Rosinger, who also directs the Water, Health, and Nutrition Laboratory and was senior author on the study. “Because of this, being in the ‘sweet spot’ of hydration seems to be best for cognitive function, especially for tasks requiring sustained attention.”
According to the researchers, scientists have long suspected that dehydration may have an effect on cognitive performance. However, previous studies have largely focused on young, healthy people who are dehydrated after exercise and/or being in the heat.
Bethancourt said that because exercise and elevated ambient and body temperatures can have their own, independent effects on cognition, she and the other researchers were interested in the effects of day-to-day hydration status in the absence of exercise or heat stress, especially among older adults.