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Low Blood Sodium: A Risk for Cognitive Decline

Cognitive degeneration in the elderly is a growing concern, which is why research continues to explore the causes and possible treatments. As we learn more about the condition, it’s becoming clear that some of our own choices and lifestyle habits may be contributing to mental decline in our later years. New studies suggest that one such factor may have something to do with our sodium intake and how it interacts with the brain.

Sodium Levels May Be Related To Cognitive Functioning

While you might assume that high sodium levels are interfering with mental functioning, the opposite may actually be true. In elderly subjects, a recent study discovered that low sodium levels in the blood results in a condition called hyponatremia. Although it takes a very low sodium count for the condition to occur, just 135 millimoles per liter (mmol/L), the condition can pose long term dangers to older patients.

Previously, there hadn’t been any symptoms associated with the condition, but the latest study published by the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology uncovered evidence that hyponatremia may instigate a host of other conditions. The suspected symptoms include deficits in attention, falls and gait disturbances, cardiovascular disease, and the possibility of premature death. Even so, those low sodium levels will probably go unnoticed in exams, unless the doctor is looking for the problem specifically.

The inability to recognize hyponatremia in older adults is primarily due to the fact that both low sodium levels and cognitive degeneration are common occurrences in the elderly. While the research has discovered a correlation between the two conditions, it’s still unknown as to whether increasing the sodium level in the patient will improve or restore cognitive functioning. In the study, researchers monitored 5,435 elderly men, 65 years and older, over the course of four and a half years. In that time, the study showed that the low sodium levels were connected to cognitive impairment and declining cognitive function. While those with sodium levels of 141 to 142 millimoles per liter didn’t show significant signs of mental decline, test subjects exhibiting lower levels of 126-140 mmol/L exhibited a 30% higher risk of developing an impairment of cognitive abilities. Additionally, men with the lower sodium counts had a 37% higher chance of developing gradual decline in cognitive functioning over time.

What Causes Hyponatremia?

Sodium isn’t just important to cognitive functioning, but also to how our bodies function overall. It helps to regulate blood pressure levels, promotes better functioning of the nerves and muscles, and keeps fluid levels balanced. There are several causes of the low sodium levels that cause hyponatremia and, while some may be out of your control, lifestyle choices can impact the condition. By attempting to control as many of these contributing factors as possible, individuals may be able to reduce their risk of experiencing low sodium and hyponatremia.

The condition may be caused by some medications and, if you are on medication and low sodium levels are found in your blood, you may want to discuss this possibility with your doctor. Water pills, also known as diuretics, are especially likely to cause hyponatremia, because they cause increased urination. Sodium can be expelled through the urine, which contributes to lower sodium levels throughout the body. Additionally, antidepressants and pain medications may also contribute to the condition. Generally speaking, any medication that causes you to urinate or perspire more than usual can instigate the development of hyponatremia.

Other medical conditions may also contribute to low sodium levels. Primarily, Liver, heart, and kidney problems may exacerbate the condition. When an individual experiences cardiovascular events, or develops problems with the liver or kidneys, an unusual build-up of fluids can occur. As your body retains more fluid, the sodium levels, which would otherwise be at a normal level, can become diluted. This weakens their effectiveness in controlling body functions and, long-term, can cause hyponatremia to develop.

Similarly, chronic diarrhea and/or vomiting can cause sodium to be expelled from the body. Drinking too much water can also affect sodium levels by diluting the blood and reducing the effectiveness of the sodium. This is also true in instances when you may be engaging in physical activities, such as marathons or other sporting events. Your body expels sweat through perspiration, so drinking too much water to hydrate can further deplete the sodium levels in your body. This is why sports drinks that contain electrolytes may be a better choice. The hormonal changes caused by Addison’s disease, which is an adrenal gland deficiency, can also cause hyponatremia. The condition prevents your body from producing sufficient levels of enough sodium and potassium. Also, poor sodium levels can result from an imbalance of thyroid hormones.

Dietary Changes Can Keep Your Sodium at Optimum Levels

If you’re concerned about developing hyponatremia and want to boost your sodium levels, eating foods rich in sodium is one way to naturally affect the condition. The following dietary alternatives can help you increase your sodium levels without the need for medication in many cases.

Coconut Water - Drinking coconut water is good for you in many ways. In addition to containing ample supplies of potassium and sodium, it’s an excellent source of electrolytes and magnesium. This is an excellent choice to prevent or correct dehydration as well.

Bananas - Because bananas are rich with potassium, they can also boost your sodium levels. One suggestion is to eat a banana after a workout or other strenuous activity.

Cheese - There are 215 milligrams of sodium in a 100 gram slice of cheese, proving that it may be one of the best sources of sodium available. It’s best to eat cheese raw to avoid cooking the sodium content out of the food.

Olives - Here is another excellent source of sodium, especially when eaten with cheese. In 100 grams of olives, there’s 1,556 milligrams of sodium.

While researchers continue to study the correlation between sodium levels and cognitive functioning, the importance of sodium in your diet can’t be ignored. By eating foods rich in sodium and potassium, you may be able to keep your nutrient levels within an optimum range and avoid developing hyponatremia as you mature. Keeping a better grip on sodium levels will benefit your physical health, but may also play a role in strengthening your cognitive functioning.


The content on this page is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Patients should not use the information presented on this page for diagnosing a health-related issue or disease. Before taking any medication or supplements, patients should always consult a physician or qualified healthcare professional for medical advice or information about whether a drug is safe, appropriate or effective.