When someone has higher than normal potassium in their blood it’s known as hyperkalemia. Normal levels of potassium for adults should be between 3.7 and 5.2 mEq/L (milliequivalents per liter). When levels drop below 3.5 or exceed 6, the affected individual should speak with a doctor immediately. The elderly are often at risk for higher potassium levels and may need to get treatment. For those elderly patients who are housebound and eligible for EEOICPA and RECA, they may qualify for free home healthcare services as well. This can ease the burden of transporting a patient who is not very mobile.
What Causes High Potassium Levels in the Elderly?
As people age, kidney functions change. Once blood flow starts decreasing, the kidneys’ ability to filter the incoming blood also decreases. The result is a slower excretion of potassium, which can lead to hyperkalemia. In patients who experience acute or chronic kidney disease or kidney failure, the problem becomes even more severe.
Another cause of increased potassium levels could be an excessive intake of potassium. Potassium-rich foods like bananas, yogurt, boiled potatoes, and tomatoes are soft and often easy for elderly people with dental problems to chew. Older people tend to eat more prunes and raisins, which are also both high in potassium.
The use of supplements that are high in potassium or using salt substitutes can also cause an increase in potassium levels. Some people use potassium chloride salt substitutes, which are helpful at lowering blood sodium levels, but they can be dangerous for someone with problems excreting potassium.
Medications can also be the cause of higher potassium levels. It’s not uncommon for elderly patients to be put on diuretics which can cause potassium excretion to decrease. Watch out for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or aspirin, as they can make the body struggle with removing potassium from the bloodstream.
There are a number of other medications that can impact potassium levels, like angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, which is why it’s important to speak with your doctors to determine whether any of your medication is contributing to your higher potassium levels.
There are other less common causes of hyperkalemia, which include:
- HIV and other particular infections
- Massive injury that results in muscle damage
- Alcoholism or heavy drug use that causes a breakdown in the muscle fibers which release potassium
- Burns over a large portion of the body
- High-volume blood transfusions
- Type 1 diabetes
- Addison’s disease (adrenal insufficiency)
Effects of High Potassium
In many cases, there are no symptoms of high potassium, which means the damage could be occurring without the patient even realizing it. Some symptoms of high potassium levels include muscle weakness; diarrhea; weak, slow, or irregular pulse; paresthesia; abdominal cramping; nausea; irritability; or even sudden collapse. To diagnosis high potassium, doctors often use laboratory data and changes in electrocardiogram readings. It’s important to note that not all patients will display changes in their electrocardiogram though.
Treating High Potassium Levels
Emergency treatment may be needed in situations where potassium levels are very high and there are concerns noted in an electrocardiogram reading. You may need an IV with calcium to treat the effects on the heart. They may need to administer glucose and insulin through your IV as well, which can quickly decrease potassium levels long enough to effectively correct the issue.
If kidney function is deteriorating, you may also need kidney dialysis, water pills, sodium bicarbonate, or other medication to help remove the excess potassium from the intestines prior to absorption.
Reducing the Risk of Hyperkalemia
You should talk to your doctor before making massive changes to your diet, but there are some foods that can raise potassium levels. Some of the foods you may need to avoid include:
- Tomato sauce or tomatoes
- Spinach, cooked
- Winter squash
- Prunes, raisins, and other dried fruits
- Oranges, including orange juice
Foods that are low in potassium include:
- Bread and bread products
Learn More About Getting the Care Elderly Patients Need
If you have someone in your family who is elderly, getting them the proper care is important. With a busy schedule and work, it may be hard for you to take care of them around the clock yourself. Fortunately, there are options like a nursing home or assisted living facilities. For EEOICPA and RECA beneficiaries, free home healthcare services may also be an option. To learn more, contact United Energy Workers Healthcare and Four Corners Health Care to answer all your questions on EEOICPA and RECA programs.