Total body elemental composition was measured in 40 patients with well documented heart failure who were oedema-free on digoxin and diuretics. The results were compared with values for 20 patients with untreated essential hypertension matched for height, weight, age, and sex. Total body potassium alone was also measured in 20 normal subjects also matched for anthropomorphic measurements. Patients with hypertension had a very similar total body potassium content to that of normal subjects, but patients with heart failure had significantly reduced total body potassium. This could not be explained by muscle wasting because total body nitrogen, largely present in muscle tissue, was well maintained. When total body potassium was expressed as a ratio of potassium to nitrogen mass a consistent depletion of potassium was revealed in the group with heart failure. Potassium depletion was poorly related to diuretic dose, severity of heart failure, age, or renal function. Activation of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system was, however, related to hypokalaemia and potassium depletion. Such patients also had significantly lower concentrations of serum sodium and blood pressure. Serum potassium was related directly to total body potassium. Despite the absence of clinically apparent oedema total body chlorine was not consistently increased in heart failure, but the calculated extracellular fluid volume remained expanded in the heart failure group. Total body sodium was significantly increased in patients with heart failure, but less than half of this increase could be accounted for by extracellular fluid volume expansion. Potassium depletion in heart failure may account in part for the high frequency of arrhythmias and sudden death in this condition.
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