More than half of all U.S. children and teens are under hydrated – most likely because they are not drinking enough water – according to new research from Harvard. Published in the June 11 American Journal of Public Health, the first-of-its-kind study reported that a lack of adequate hydration could affect kids’ physical and mental health.
“These findings are significant because they highlight a potential health issue that has not been given a whole lot of attention in the past,” lead author Erica Kenney, ScD, a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a news release.
“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 adolescents,” Kenney added.
Sufficient amounts of water intake are vital for such bodily processes as circulation, metabolism, temperature regulation and waste removal. And while severe dehydration can lead to serious health problems, mild dehydration can also cause issues, including headaches, irritability, poorer physical performance, and reduced cognitive functioning, the researchers noted.
For the study, Kenney and her colleagues analyzed 2009 to 2012 data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an annual study of the health of U.S. children and adults conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The study sample included more than 4,000 children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 years old.
The researchers used urine osmolality – a test that measures how concentrated the urine is – to determine hydration levels. “Generally, a lower number means that you’re pretty well hydrated, and a higher number means that your urine is more concentrated,” Kenney told CBS News.
Concentration levels correspond to urine color, explained Kenney. “When you have really light colored urine, you’re well hydrated versus dark colored urine when it’s more concentrated.”
Results showed that 54.5 percent of the children and adolescents in the study were inadequately hydrated. Boys were 76 percent more likely than girls, and non-Hispanic blacks were 34 percent more likely than non-Hispanic whites to be under-hydrated. Of particular significance was the finding that nearly a quarter of the kids said they drank no plain water at all.
Even though juice and other beverages contribute to fluid intake, experts advise parents that water is the best way to hydrate and to limit juice and other sugary drinks. “Regular consumption of juice trains the palate to crave sweet beverages and may discourage your child from drinking water as they perceive it as too bland,” Lauren Graph, a registered dietician who works with pediatric patients at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, told CBS News.
Graph suggested that parents enhance the taste of plain water by adding fresh lemon, lime or orange slices. “Add these fruits to a large pitcher of water and leave it in the refrigerator,” she said. “The fruit adds a refreshing, subtle hint of flavor but without adding sugar.”
The good news, according to senior study author Steven Gortmaker, PhD, a professor of the practice of health sociology at Harvard, is that “this is a public health problem with a simple solution. 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.”