Reduction in salt intake could prevent deaths: US study

Pressure check

The United States could prevent up to half a million deaths over the next decade if Americans cut their salt intake to within national guidelines, according to a new study.

That finding — which comes the week New York City announced success toward its goals of cutting salt levels by one-quarter by 2014 — is based on computer simulations using data from various studies on the effects of extra sodium on blood pressure and heart risks.

The Institute of Medicine recommends most healthy people get 1,500 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day, with an upper limit of 2,300 mg. But the average American eats more like 3,600 mg each day, largely through processed food.

"Reducing sodium intake is important for everyone, not just a small subset of people who are salt sensitive," said Pamela Coxson, the study's lead author from the University of California, San Francisco.

Although the health effects of a salt cutback may be small for the average person, she said, the results show they add up when projected across millions of Americans.

Still, one blood pressure researcher not involved in the new study said the models don't reflect the full picture of health consequences tied to too little or too much salt.

Coxson and her colleagues ran three salt-reduction scenarios through models that predicted how a lower-sodium diet would impact a person's risk of having high blood pressure or dying of cardiovascular disease.

The most realistic scenario was a gradual decline in Americans' average sodium intake over ten years to about 2,200 mg per day. That goal would be "optimistic but potentially achievable," the researchers wrote in the journal Hypertension.

Based on their calculations — and taking into account uncertainties about sodium's direct effect on the heart — Coxson and her colleagues calculated 280,000 to 500,000 fewer Americans would die over the next decade as a result of that reduction.

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