Loss of balance, along with dehydration, attention deficits and loss of cognition are symptoms of a condition known as hyponatremia, characterized by low salt levels in the blood. The symptoms can occur even with just slight hyponatremia and can have particularly harmful effects for the elderly as the condition is difficult to diagnose. A study presented at an American Society of Nephrology meeting suggests that low-salt diets may be a contributing factor.
Falls are one of the most serious problems for the elderly and about a third of people over 65 fall at least once every year. Fall-related injuries in the elderly are associated with numerous psychological and physical consequences and are a leading cause of bone breakage and hip fractures, which can lead to complications and permanent disability or death. Falls account for nearly half of all injury-related deaths for senior citizens.
The study, Mild Hyponatremia as a Risk Factor for Fractures: The Rotterdam Study, followed more 5,000 Dutch adults over the age of 55 for a six-year period. The researchers found that 8 percent of the participants were in assisted living facilities and all the people in this group were suffering from mild hyponatremia. Follow-up visits revealed that they had higher rates of diabetes and falls than those with normal levels of salt in their system.
Seniors in assisted living centers are routinely placed on low-salt diets, often without an individual assessment, according to a report published by the Pioneer Network titled “New Dining Practice Standards.” This report was the product of a task force of 12 professional medical, nursing and nutritional organizations. They concluded that low-salt diets were contributing to malnutrition and weight loss among a significant percentage of seniors in assisted living facilities.
According to Dr. Ewout J. Hoorn, PhD, Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, "Although the complications of hyponatremia are well-recognized in hospitalized patients, this is one of the first studies to show that mild hyponatremia also has important complications in the general population." He added, "Screening for a low sodium concentration in the blood, and treating it when present, may be a new strategy to prevent fractures."
Americans are now living longer than ever before. In fact, one of the fastest-growing segments is people over the age of 85 who will represent 20 percent of the population by the year 2040. These elderly Americans deserve to be able to enjoy a high quality of life, and while some seniors do need a low-salt diet, many others may not. Without an individual medical assessment it should not be assumed that all seniors will benefit from this intervention when in fact the opposite may be the case.