The health aspects of low potassium levels in the elderly
Potassium is an important electrolyte, which is necessary for maintaining many body functions. It is especially important for our aging loved ones. As it regulates heartbeats and nerve functions. A sudden drop in levels or a deficiency of this electrolyte can lead to serious life-threatening conditions. It is important that we get the required amount of it to maintain proper body functions. The adequate intake for both men and women as given by the Linus Pauling Institute is 4700 mg of potassium per day. Low levels of potassium are medically known as hypokalemia.
Low potassium levels and our elderly
As we age, our body undergoes a lot of physiological changes. The kidney functioning takes a back seat. Which significantly affects the various mechanisms that control the process of reabsorption. Furthermore, when the kidney functioning gets affected, the urine output increases, which again causes the levels to drop. Among the various physiological changes, the gastrointestinal function also gets affected. Which can cause recurrent vomiting and diarrhea.
- Several medical conditions, such as leukemia, magnesium deficiency, Crohn’s disease or Cushing’s disease can all cause the levels to drop. In Cushing syndrome, the kidneys can excrete a very large amount of potassium. This is due to the overproduction of aldosterone, a hormone, by the adrenal glands.
- Various medications such as diuretics, antibiotics, laxatives, bronchodilators, insulin, theophyllines, and steroids, can all interfere with the body’s absorption of potassium.
Other factors which can cause a deficiency
- Alcohol consumption
- Excessive consumption of licorice
- Diabetic ketoacidosis
- Deficiency of folic acid
- Primary aldosteronism
- Sweating profusely
- Hypomagnesemia, characterized by low levels of magnesium in the blood
Symptoms of potassium deficiency in the elderly
Hypokalemia is a common concern among the elderly population. A minor fall in the potassium levels usually does not cause any symptoms. However, a significant decrease in serum levels can give rise to an array of symptoms. Symptoms of hypokalemia mimic other conditions, and therefore may often go unnoticed. Therefore, it is necessary that caregivers take particular note of the various signs and symptoms of the condition. Dealing with this day out and being careful to monitor the condition can cause strain on you, as the caregiver.
The various symptoms of low levels include the following:
- Excessive tiredness or fatigue, are the primary signs of potassium deficiency.
- Muscle cramps
- Paraesthesia, a condition characterized by a tingling sensation along with numbness in the hands, feet, arms, and legs.
- Difficulty in breathing can also be a major symptom of potassium deficiency. Low levels in the blood, can cause the lungs to contract and expand in an improper fashion, causing shortness of breath.
- Bone damage
- Slowed paced heartbeats or abnormal heart rhythm, which may particularly occur if the elderly are already suffering from heart diseases. Moreover, severe potassium deficiency that can also trigger abnormal heartbeats.
- Development of skin rashes
- Muscle pain and stiffness
- High blood glucose levels
- Nervous disorders
- Mental disorders have also contributed to low levels. In a study, it found that there was a high prevalence of hypokalemia in psychiatric patients.
- Digestion issues, such as bloating as well as constipation. It plays an important part in transmitting the signals from the brain to the muscles located in the digestive tract to churn and digest the food. However, this activity is seriously hampered when the level is far below normal. Low levels disrupt the contractions occurring in the digestive tract, lowering the movement of the food through the tract.
Sources of potassium
Categorized under the essential minerals, as it is not produced by the body. In order to maintain adequate potassium levels, we need to eat foods rich in this electrolyte. The main food sources include the following:
- Seafood (a serving of baked fish – 405 mg of potassium)
- Milk and dairy products
- Soy products
- Fruits such as citrus fruits, avocados (medium-sized avocado – 975 mg). Bananas (a medium-sized banana contains 467 mg of potassium). Kiwi (per cup – 562 mg). Dried apricots (per cup provides 1511 mg). Squash, melons(one melon wedge provides 434 mg of potassium). Pomegranates (per cup – 411mg)
- Vegetables such as potatoes, peas, tomatoes, spinach (1 cup cooked – 839 mg), sweet potato (1 large sized – 855mg)
- Nonfat milk (a cup provides 407 mg of potassium)
Caring for a loved one with low potassium
Overseeing this can cause you to stress because you can’t be in 2 places at one time: taking care of your business and taking care of your loved one. Look into hiring some help. This will give you the opportunity to get some rest and also make sure your loved one is properly cared for. Or maybe you want to spend more time with your loved one while taking a break from some of the redundant business tasks like sending out emails, returning calls, or organizing files. Let’s chat about how I can be of service to you so you can take care of your business and your loved one.
Treatment of hypokalemia
Treatment of hypokalemia shouldn’t be a difficult job. Usually, supplements form the first line of treatment, along with treating the underlying cause. Supplements cannot be taken in a single large dose but taken several times a day in small dosages. Because, when you take the supplements orally, it can trigger some form of irritation in the digestive tract, causing discomfort. Therefore, it is necessary to take the supplement pills along with meals several times a day.
In many cases, you may need to take potassium intravenously. However, this is done in conditions when the levels are extremely low and the deficiency is interfering with the heart function, causing abnormal heart rhythms. In such cases, intravenous administration of potassium becomes necessary. Also, check out this post on leg cramps.
I agree with low potassium being bad, but with the right foods, we can stay on track. We all have to keep our loved ones healthy and happy. But you also need to monitor your loved one’s potassium levels. So use the tips and suggestions I’ve provided to keep your loved one’s levels healthy.
Let me know in the comments if this article was helpful for you and if you have experienced this situation with your loved one?