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Getting too much sodium in your diet and not enough potassium may impact your risk of cognitive decline. Bisual Studio/Stocksy
  • A new study showed higher dietary sodium was associated with a higher risk of memory deterioration, and higher potassium intake was associated with higher cognitive function.
  • Sodium and potassium play an important role in the body, working together to maintain water balance, send nerve impulses, and contract muscles.
  • There are many ways to reduce sodium in your diet, including eating more greens, making home-cooked meals, and reading nutrition labels to choose foods with low sodium content.

Dementia is one of the most common neurological conditions, affecting more than 55 million people worldwide. It is characterized by memory loss, language problems, and problem-solving issues that affect the individual’s ability to function.

Since there is no treatment for dementia, it’s important to detect it early and manage symptoms. Prior research suggests that lifestyle plays a role in cognitive function, which includes diet, exercise, and sleep habits.

Researchers from China wanted to dive deeper into dietary habits and explore the effects of sodium and potassium on cognitive function. In their study, recently published in the journal Global Transitions,researchers found higher dietary sodium was linked to a higher risk of memory deterioration, and higher potassium intake was linked to higher cognitive function.

“Based on our findings, it is reasonable to suggest that decreasing sodium intake and properly increasing potassium intake is beneficial to cognitive function. Given our results and the nutritional situation of the Chinese, it will be important for future studies to focus on determining the optimal ratio of dietary sodium and potassium in the elderly. In addition, the development of strategies to improve the sodium-to-potassium ratio in Chinese diets should be a priority,” study author Ai Zhao said in a news release.

Sodium and potassium play an important role in your overall health.

“Potassium and sodium are electrolytes [that] work together in your body by maintaining fluid and blood volume, but they have opposite effects,” said Amy Fox, certified nutritionist and certified functional food professional who runs the Food and Mood website.

“Consuming too little potassium and too much sodium can raise your blood pressure and potentially cause long-term heart problems.”

Sodium helps to balance our bodily fluids and regulate our blood pressure, and plays a crucial role in normal nerve and muscle function, transmitting nerve impulses between the brain and the body and allowing muscles to contract, Dina Totosegis, registered dietitian and founder of Sprouting Foodies, explained.

Potassium holds similar roles in the body as sodium, such as maintaining water balance, sending nerve impulses, and contracting muscles; however, it works to counter the effects of sodium in the body.

Evidence on the relationship between sodium intake and cognitive function is lacking; however, some recent studies have suggested the potential mechanisms of action.

One possible explanation for high sodium intake and adverse effects on cognitive decline may be related to the endothelial cells inside the brain, Fox explained.

Endothelial cells are the primary type of cell found in the inside lining of blood vessels and help regulate blood flow to the brain and interact with the surrounding brain tissue.

A high dietary intake of salt has been associated with the dysfunction of these cells. Endothelial dysfunction may play a role in brain-related diseases, specifically cerebral small vessel disease, one of the leading causes of dementia, Fox added.

Some early studies have also shown that high sodium levels may cause a chemical change to a protein known as tau.

This chemical change can cause tau to clump together. This type of clumping is being investigated as a potential link to some dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

Potassium is an electrolyte that also helps to optimize brain function.

“Consider potassium like the electrician of your body,” said Fox. “The body’s internal electrical system is necessary for nerve stimulation, muscle contraction, and fluid regularity. Potassium helps keep the brain and nerves working at their best to allow for clarity of thought. It also helps brain cells communicate to the large muscles.”

The typical Western diet is often lacking in potassium, which is essential not only for brain health but bone and heart health, too.

But the human body cannot produce potassium, so you’ll need to rely on whole-food sources to ensure you get enough of this essential mineral.

Bananas are perhaps the most well-known source of potassium. Other healthy potassium-rich foods include:

  • oranges
  • beets
  • potatoes
  • sweet potatoes
  • parsnips
  • white beans
  • dark leafy greens
  • yogurt
  • salmon

Additionally, because potassium is an electrolyte, many sports drinks and dissolvable tablets are packed with it. Just be sure to read labels carefully and avoid any sports drinks containing too much added sugar.

You could also try other electrolyte beverages, such as electrolyte-infused water and coconut water, for low- to no-sugar hydration.

The typical Western diet is notoriously high in sodium, with many people in the United States consuming far more than the recommended amount. Here are a few ways you can reduce the amount of sodium in your diet:

Ditch processed foods

Use fresh rather than packaged foods. Fresh foods usually have much less sodium added during processing.

Eat more greens

Boost your intake of fruit and vegetables, which are naturally low in sodium.

Canned and frozen fruits can be low in sodium too, but choose options that have “No Salt Added” or “Fresh Frozen” and do not contain added seasoning or sauces, Fox stated.

Get to know labels

Read the Nutrition Facts label to check the daily value amounts.

Choose products with 5% Daily Value (DV) or less, Fox explained. Stay away from 20% Daily Value (DV) or higher. Also, compare brands. You’d be surprised how much sodium content can vary from brand to brand.

Choose poultry wisely

It’s a common practice for companies to inject saltwater solutions into their poultry for tastier, juicier meat. Inspect the label to ensure it hasn’t been injected with a sodium solution, Fox said.

Sodium levels in unseasoned fresh meats are around 100 milligrams (mg) or less per 4-ounce serving.

Limit the use of condiments

Condiments are high in sodium. Fox recommended limiting the use of condiments or buying reduced- or lower-sodium versions.

Make your own meals

Prepare home-cooked meals from scratch as much as possible to help limit the sodium content of processed or fast foods, Totosegis explained.

Choose different seasonings

Season with herbs and spices to add flavor while limiting table salt, Totosegis stated.

A diet high in sodium is associated with a higher risk of memory deterioration, and higher potassium intake was associated with higher cognitive function, according to a new study.

While sodium and potassium both play a crucial role in the body, the main difference is potassium helps to counter the effects of sodium. Too much sodium can lead to various health issues, including cognitive decline.

The reason for sodium’s effect on the brain may be related to the endothelial cells. Prior research shows higher salt intake is linked to poor function of these cells.

There are numerous ways to limit sodium in your diet, which include buying fresh instead of packaged foods, eating more fruits and vegetables, and choosing different seasonings.