Evidence from the latest research suggests that cutting back daily salt intake – as little as a half teaspoon a day – could prevent 92,000 deaths and nearly 100,000 heart attacks in the US every year. And the impact would also show up in the nation’s healthcare bottom line – saving the US about $24 billion annually in healthcare related costs.
The report was published in a January 2010 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine and was conducted by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, Stanford University Medical Center and Columbia University Medical Center.
Astounding figures from the American Heart Association (AHA) show that salt consumed by Americans has risen by 50% since the 1970s. The incriminating cross-relationship is that the incidence of high blood pressure in the US population during the same period has also risen by almost 50%. At the same time there is mounting evidence demonstrating the connection between salt intake and high blood pressure and heart disease.
Dr Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, UCSF associate professor of medicine and epidemiology and the co-director of the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations at San Francisco General Hospital, told the media that: "A very modest decrease in the amount of salt, hardly detectable in the taste of food, can have dramatic health benefits for the US. It was a surprise to see the magnitude of the impact on the population, given the small reductions in salt that we were modeling.”
Using a computer model the researchers were able to estimate the impact that even small changes in salt intake would have on the population. In this case a half teaspoon less salt (about 1200 mg of sodium) would produce dramatic changes in coronary risk for the population:
• 11 per cent fewer new cases of heart disease,
• 13 per cent fewer heart attacks,
• 8 per cent fewer strokes, and
• 4 per cent fewer deaths.
The impact would be even greater for the African Americans population which is more prone to high blood pressure and may be more sensitive to salt.
Government data shows that the average American consumes at least twice the recommended amount of salt. The challenge for many Americans is that most processed, pre-prepared and canned foods contain excessive amounts of salt. To the extent these foods are part of a person’s diet it is difficult to control salt intake. As a result government agencies are looking at both regulatory and voluntary programs that would mandate reduced salt over a wide range of food services. Similar to other programs across the country that mandated reduced tranfat, these regulations would target excessive salt content in food served in schools, restaurants and even in industrial food processes.
Senior author Dr. Lee Goldman, executive vice president for health and biomedical sciences and dean of the faculties of health sciences and medicine at Columbia University said: "Reducing dietary salt is one of those rare interventions that has a huge health benefit and actually saves large amounts of money. At a time when so much public debate has focused on the costs of health care for the sick, here is a simple remedy, already proven to be feasible in other countries."
The researchers concluded: "Our study suggests that the food industry and those who regulate it could contribute substantially to the health of the nation by achieving even small reductions in the amount of salt in these processed foods."