You probably already know that a high-salt diet puts you at risk for heart disease and strokes. Salt, via its component element sodium, raises blood pressure (a condition known as hypertension) and can damage heart muscle tissue or brain tissue, as well as weaken the walls of major blood vessels like the coronary and femoral arteries. And though the heart and brain get most of the attention when it comes to warnings, high dietary sodium intake has farther-reaching consequences in the body — especially for seniors.
Peripheral edema is often the first warning sign.
One of the most immediate signs of uncontrolled hypertension is the retaining of water in the body, first noticeable as swelling in feet, legs and hands— a symptom doctors call peripheral edema.
As sodium builds in the blood, your body senses the increase and is tricked into thinking that it is dehydrated, and excess water isn’t expelled. Unfortunately, that extra water has few places to go.
Think of your blood vessels like garden hoses— if you were to hook a garden hose up to a fire hydrant, the hose is bound to stretch and eventually become leaky or split entirely. Water leaks from capillaries into the surrounding tissues, where it is held.
Extremities usually swell first because they are farthest away from the heart and least efficient at draining excess fluid. The effect can be exacerbated by cholesterol blockages.
Chronic peripheral edema and poor circulation (venous insufficiency) can result in loss of sensation or strength in the affected limbs or even tissue death (necrosis). Due to poor circulation, sufferers of chronic venous insufficiency often have trouble healing wounds which can lead to serious infections and eventual loss of the wounded limb.
In severe cases, a life-threatening system-wide condition called sepsis (or, "blood poisoning") can develop, which can result in high fevers and multi-organ failure.
Of the major organs, the kidneys are usually first to fail.
Most people don't know that kidney disease, also known as renal failure, is a major complication of uncontrolled high blood pressure.
The kidneys' primary job, of course, is to filter waste products out of the blood and put them into a solution with excess water, thus forming urine. The urine is then expelled from the body, eliminating waste and maintaining a proper balance of water to electrolytes (salts that the body uses to conduct the electrical signals that govern muscle movements and nerve impulses) in the bloodstream.
Acute renal failure can develop very quickly — typically in a few days, or even over a few hours — and can leave lasting damage to the kidneys.
Damage resulting in chronic renal failure can have very serious consequences.
You can avoid many of these life-threatening illnesses just by eating right.
Start with lowering your sodium intake.
In the United States and other Western countries, that generally begins with cooking for yourself more often, using fresh ingredients instead of processed and pre-packaged foods. Although processed foods are often convenient and tasty, salt is a primary preservative, so sodium content can be ridiculously high.
Just one 8-ounce serving of a canned beef stew, for example, provides a whopping 41% of a person's maximum recommended daily sodium intake. Given that the average can of beef stew contains 3 such servings, and most people will eat an entire can in a sitting… well, you get the picture.
Diet soft drinks are another sneaky sodium vector. Although they have few or even zero calories, their flavorings have a high sodium content— roughly double, on average, the sodium content of a non-diet soda. So, you're trading off calories for increased salt. Neither option is very good, so you're best off limiting soda drinks altogether.
Subbing in Gatorade or other sports drinks is a no-no, too. Gatorade contains about 450 mg of sodium per liter— that's about a full third of the maximum recommended daily sodium intake for a person with high blood pressure.
It's best to drink water, lightly-sweetened fresh lemonade, or fruit juices with no added sweeteners in order to stay hydrated.
Maintaining good senior health depends on your lifestyle choices.
If you are a senior who cooks for yourself, make an appointment with a nutritionist or your primary care doctor to map out a low sodium diet plan. Have your blood drawn regularly to check for signs of elevated sodium or the beginnings of kidney failure, and don't skip out on your yearly physical exam.
Knowing the risks of high dietary sodium intake, and adjusting eating behaviors accordingly, can save you a lot of serious trouble in the long run. Above all, staying as active as possible will help you to keep your body in balance and living well into the future.