Why is my relatively healthy elderly patient so prone to hyperkalemia?

Hyporeninemic hypoaldosteronism (HH)—without impairment of cortisol synthesis— is associated with hyperkalemic (type IV) renal tubular acidosis (RTA) and is not uncommon among older patients despite glomerular filtration rates (GFRs) >20 ml/min, and absence of diabetes mellitus or chronic tubulointerstitial disease (1-7).  

Hyperkalemia due to HH in the elderly should come as no surprise because the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) function declines with age, reaching its lowest level by age 60. 1-4   In fact, older people have comparatively lower mean levels of plasma renin and aldosterone at baseline and have an impaired ability to mount appropriate responses to RAAS stimuli, such as upright posture, volume depletion, catecholamines, or potassium administration (3-5).

The impaired RAAS capacity in the elderly often becomes more obvious when they are prescribed medications that further suppress RAAS (3). These include angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers, beta-blockers, calcium-channel blockers, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents and heparin (3,7). 

Drugs that increase aldosterone resistance, including potassium-sparing diuretics (eg, spironolactone, amiloride, triamterene, eplerenone) and certain antibiotics (eg, trimethoprim, pentamidine) may also aggravate hyperkalemia associated with HH (7). 

A variety of mechanisms leading to HH with aging have been proposed. These include impaired conversion of prorenin to renin, prostaglandin deficiency, sympathetic nervous system dysfunction and increased plasma levels of atrial natriuretic factors as found in congestive heart failure (1,7). 

Bonus pearl: Did you know that the first case of “pure hypoaldosteronism” was described in 1957 in a 71 year old non-diabetic patient with hyperkalemia in the setting of congestive heart failure? (8)

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  1. Bauer JH. Age-related changes in the renin-aldosterone system. Physiological effects and clinical implications. Drugs & Aging 1993;3:238-45. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8324299
  2. Musso CG, Jauregui JR. Renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system and the aging kidney. Expert Rev Endocrinol Metab 2014;9:543-46. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1586/17446651.2014.956723
  3. Yoon HE, Choi BS. The renin-angiotensin system and aging in the kidney. Korean J Intern Med 2014;29:291-95. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262530577_The_renin-angiotensin_system_and_aging_in_the_kidney
  4. Nadler JL, Lee FO, Hsueh W, et al. Evidence of prostacyclin deficiency in the syndrome of hyporeninemic hypoaldosteronism. N Engl J Med 1986;314:1015-20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3515183
  5. Williams GH. Hyporeninemic hypoaldosteronism. N Engl J Med 1986;314:1041-42. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3515186
  6.  Block BL, Bernard S, Schwartzstein RM. Hypo-hypo: a complex metabolic disorder. Ann Am Thorac Soc 2016;13:127-133. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26730868
  7. Michelis MF. Hyperkalemia in the elderly. Am J Kid Dis 1990;16:296-99.https://www.ajkd.org/article/S0272-6386(12)80005-9/pdf
  8. Hudson JB, Chobanian AV, Relman AS. Hypoaldosteronism. A clinical study of a patient with an isolated adrenal mineralocorticoid deficiency, resulting in hyperkaliemia and Stokes-Adams attack. N Engl J Med 1957;257:529-36. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13464977


Why is my relatively healthy elderly patient so prone to hyperkalemia?

My previously healthy 55 year old patient is admitted with a respiratory tract infection and a respiratory rate of 22 breaths/min. Should I be concerned?

Any respiratory rate (RR) greater than 20/min in an adult patient may be cause for concern, particularly in the setting of potentially serious disease and absence of an obvious cause such as pain or fever.

Our patient’s RR is outside the commonly cited normal range of 12-20/min. It indicates increased alveolar ventilation which may in turn be caused by hypoxia, hypercapnea, or metabolic acidosis, all portending possibly poor outcome, if left untreated.It’s no surprise that an abnormal RR is often the first sign of clinical deterioration.2 RR is also the least likely of the vital signs to be affected by polypharmacy (eg, NSAIDs affecting temperature, beta-blockers affecting heart rate and blood pressure). 

Another reason for not dismissing an RR of 22 in our patient is the common practice of guessing rather than measuring the RR by healthcare providers in part likely due to the  more “labor-intensive” nature of measuring RRs compared to other vital signs and lack of appreciation for its importance in assessing severity of disease. 1 Of note, in an experimental study of doctors viewing videos of mock patients, over 50% failed to detect abnormal RR when using the “spot” technique of estimating without a timer.3 Even when presented with a RR of 30/min, over 20% of doctors reported it as normal (12-20/min)!

Final tidbit: Do you want to know what a RR of 20/min really feels like? Take a breath every 3 seconds.  If you are like most, it doesn’t feel “normal”!

1. Cretikos MA, Bellomo R, Hillman K. Respiratory rate: the neglected vital sign. MJA 2008;188:657-59. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18513176
2. Flenady T, Dwer T, Applegarth J. Accurate respiratory rates count: So should you! Australas Emerg Nurs J 2017; 20:45-47. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28073649
3. Philip KEJ, Pack E, Cambiano V et al. The accuracy of respiratory rate assessment by doctors in a London teaching hospital: a cross-sectional study. J Clin Monit Comput2015;29:455-60. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25273624

My previously healthy 55 year old patient is admitted with a respiratory tract infection and a respiratory rate of 22 breaths/min. Should I be concerned?