Cutting salt could save 850,000 lives, study says

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WASHINGTON -- Steadily reducing sodium in the foods we buy and eat could save a half-million Americans from dying premature deaths over a decade, says a new study. And a more abrupt reduction to 2,200 milligrams per day -- a 40 percent drop from current levels -- could boost the tally of lives saved over 10 years to 850,000, researchers have projected.

The new estimates, published Tuesday in the American Heart Association's journal Hypertension, are the results of three separate teams crunching the numbers at the request of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco; Harvard University's School of Public Health; and Simon Fraser University in Canada came at their estimates independently, but found that their results converged.

If the average daily sodium intake of Americans were to drop instantaneously to 1,500 milligrams per day -- a steep drop to a level considered "ideal" -- as many as 1.2 million premature deaths could be averted over the course of a decade, the teams agreed.

Americans currently consume about 3,600 milligrams of sodium daily -- roughly 40 percent above the "slightly less ambitious" interim goal posited by the researchers -- and much of that is hidden in processed foods such as soups, cereals, bread and soups. While the link between sodium intake and high blood pressure is much debated, research strongly suggests that high-sodium diets can push blood pressure above safe limits and exacerbate high blood pressure, and that lowering sodium consumption tends to lower blood pressure. That is important, because some 45 percent of cardiovascular disease in the United States is attributed to high blood pressure.

The researchers called efforts to reduce average American sodium intake by 40 percent "a daunting task that will likely require multiple layers of interventions." Food industry experts and public health officials have been meeting in recent years to secure steady, small reductions in the sodium content of processed foods.

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