If you've long since banished the salt shaker from your table and made a point of not cooking with salt, you may not be doing your health a favor as you age. Too much salt isn't good for you, but too little can be harmful as well, especially in your later years. Most menopausal women have high blood pressure, even those who always had low blood pressure, and they are typically encouraged to restrict sodium intake. However, as those 50-something women become 60-somethings, continuing with a low-salt diet could spell trouble. The body's need for salt changes with age. Although the U.S. Dietary Guidelines say that seniors should consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day, several studies, including one done at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and published in the American Journal of Hypertension, challenge that assertion.
The Value of Sodium
Salt is an electrolyte, and as such it is an essential nutrient for cell, nerve, and muscle function as well as for maintaining healthy blood pressure. Without enough sodium, the balance of fluid in the body alters and a potentially dangerous condition called hyponatremia can result.
Low Sodium Symptoms
Fatigue, headache, muscle cramps and weakness, and edema or swelling of the feet are tip offs that you're not getting enough salt. More serious symptoms are loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting.
Low Salt Can Affect Your Brain
The edema or swelling that you see in your feet and sometimes hands can also happen in your brain, causing confusion and irritability – or worse. Try a sports drink or a handful of salted peanuts and you may notice improvement very quickly. However, as always you need to conduct your doctor if you have any indication that something may be wrong. Better safe than sorry!
Changes That Can Affect Your Need for Salt
The way your body processes water can affect your balance of fluids and electrolytes as you age. Also taking diuretics – "water pills" – as well as some pain medications, antidepressants, or other prescription drugs may change the balance of fluids in your body. The only way to confirm that you have low sodium is a blood test so be sure to have your levels checked by your doctor.
According to the Mayo Clinic, maintaining a healthy balance of fluids and sodium can involve changes in your medications, reducing your fluid intake, and increasing the amount of salt you consume.
On another note, the Salt Institute maintains that seniors who are getting food from such organizations as Meals on Wheels are not getting enough salt. The institute, based in Virginia, is a non-profit industry organization and not a government agency, so releases need to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Still, a recent statement by the president of the institute cited some pretty impressive scientific sources saying that because the federal Older Americans Act provides states with funding for nutritional programs, salt content is too low for the elderly.
"The Ohio Department of Aging (ODA) recently banned salt shakers from programs that serve meals to the elderly," the release states. "According to John Ratliff, Assistant Chief for Communications and Government Outreach at ODA, state agencies like his are required to ensure compliance with the USDA nutritional guidelines in order to receive federal funds. U.S. Dietary Guidelines require that seniors receive no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day, or 500 mg per meal. However, the federal guidelines on salt, especially for the elderly, may actually be harmful."
The release goes on to refer to a study done at the University of Washington and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that "makes it clear that it is also virtually impossible to have a nutritionally adequate diet when limited to such a low level of daily sodium."
In fact, the ODA reportedly reversed its position after hearing public commentary. The Salt Institute quotes Ratliff as saying, “We are striving to strike a balance between consumer choice and what the federal government regulations require.”
In sum, younger Boomers who are keeping salt intake low because of hyptension might want to have check-ups and reassess sodium needs as the years go by. And if you're already 60 or beyond, consider asking your physician how much salt might be right for you. Never make drastic dietary changes without consulting your own doctor, but do be proactive about asking whether your salt intake is right for you at this stage of your life.
Sondra Forsyth is Co-Editor-in-Chief of ThirdAge.