Over half of U.S. youngsters have a condition that’s rarely obvious — dehydration. Simply not drinking enough water may not sound like a serious problem, but it can impact how children and teens perform at school as well as their overall quality of life, according to a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study.
Water is crucial for a healthy body because it’s needed for a host of physiological processes such as adequate blood circulation, waste removal, temperature regulation, and metabolism. Severe dehydration after multiple episodes of vomiting or diarrhea or when a person stops drinking liquids can cause obvious health problems, such as fainting. But being even mildly dehydrated can trigger headaches, reduce physical performance in sports and daily activities, contribute to an irritable mood, and reduce the ability to think clearly. Children should also trade in their sports drinks for water.
The Harvard researchers investigated data from over 4,000 children and adolescents who participated in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They looked at results of urine tests from the youngsters’ medical records to see whether urine was highly concentrated (which indicates dehydration) or a normal concentration, indicating a healthy fluid intake.
The results showed more than half of all children and adolescents studied were dehydrated, especially boys. Black children and adolescents were at the highest risk of inadequate hydration compared to whites.
"These findings are significant because they highlight a potential health issue that has not been given a whole lot of attention in the past," said Erica Kenney, MPH, a Harvard postdoctoral fellow and the lead author of the study. "Even though for most of these kids this is not an immediate, dramatic health threat, this is an issue that could really be reducing quality of life and well-being for many, many children and youth."
Almost 25 percent of the children and adolescents in the study said they never drank any water at all.
"The good news is that this is a public health problem with a simple solution," said researcher Steven Gortmaker, PhD. "If we can focus on helping children drink more water — a low-cost, no-calorie beverage — we can improve their hydration status, which may allow many children to feel better throughout the day and do better in school."
While it’s obvious that parents should encourage their children to drink plenty of water during the day, getting enough water at school isn’t necessarily easy. A report headed by University of California pediatrician Anisha I. Patel, MD, revealed that although drinking fountains are the main way America’s youngsters can get drinks of water at schools and child care facilities, water fountains are often poorly maintained and inconveniently located.
In addition, it’s not unusual for a school to have an inadequate number of drinking water outlets for the number of students, even when the school is following state code. For example, the California building code requires only that schools have a single drinking fountain for every 150 students, Patel pointed out. That makes drinking water between classes almost impossible for many students.
Some school policies also discourage water consumption by banning reusable water bottles because of fears students will bring in alcoholic beverages. Many schools don’t allow drinking water in class, either, according to Patel.
If communities, parents, and teachers can find ways to increase the water intake of youngsters, it could help prevent the growing health problem of childhood obesity, according to research from King’s College in London and the Research Institute of Child Nutrition in Dortmund, Germany.
A study of second and third graders in 32 elementary schools found the risk of being overweight decreased 31 percent in a year when teachers provided classroom lessons about the importance of drinking water and the children were given access to drinking fountains. In all, the youngsters drank 1.1 more glasses of water per day when filtered water fountains were nearby. The researchers also found water intake increased when the children received new water bottles.
August 26, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA