Blood Sodium Levels Affect Cognition in Older Adults

June 11, 2018

It may seem shocking, even completely incredible, but low salt levels in your blood could cause your memory to malfunction.

We've been conditioned to believe that salt is terrible for your health. After all, it causes high blood pressure. I've dealt with that issue in the past. Truth is, salt is vital for your health. That doesn't mean you can go crazy with it. But new research shows that going light on salt without a good reason could harm your health.

In the new study, researchers found that lower levels of sodium in the blood can cause a decline in your cognitive function as you age. Low sodium (or hyponatremia) occurs when your blood levels fall below 135 mmol/L.

Scientists used to believe that mild hyponatremia was no big deal. It wouldn't cause any symptoms. But recent studies have found that it can cause attention deficits, gait disturbances, falls, cardiovascular events, and even premature death. That's definitely not asymptomatic. What happens, though, if you suffer from severe hyponatremia? Evidence has shown that it can cause cognitive impairment and neurological disturbances. But no studies have ever shown slightly low serum levels of sodium would cause the same issues. That is until now.

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The discovery came when Kristen Nowak, PhD, MPH, from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, and her colleagues examined information on 5,435 asymptomatic community-dwelling men. All of the men were over the age of 65. Of these men, 100 of them had sodium levels low enough to be considered hyponatremia. Otherwise, they were generally healthy.

Here's what they found. Lower sodium levels in the blood were related to both cognitive impairment and declines in cognitive function over time. The men who had low sodium levels (126-140 mmol/L) were 30% more likely to have cognitive impairment and 37% more likely to experience cognitive decline over time.

Dr. Nowak said, "Slightly lower sodium levels in the blood are likely to be unnoticed in clinical practice. Because both slightly lower serum sodium levels and mild changes in cognitive function are common occurrences with advancing age."

Don’t get too excited about this news and think you can go wild with the salt, though. Dr. Nowak and her team also found that high serum sodium (143-153 mmol/L) can lead to cognitive decline over time as well.

However, if you have low sodium levels, addressing them could save you from future cognitive decline. If you are over the age of 65 and already have some memory issues, ask your doctor to check your sodium levels. If they’re low, addressing your sodium levels may help slow the decline as you age.

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