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New research suggests reducing salt in the American diet by as little as one-half teaspoon (or three grams) per day could prevent nearly 100,000 heart attacks and 92,000 deaths each year.

Reducing salt in the American diet by as little as one-half teaspoon (or three grams) per day could prevent nearly 100,000 heart attacks and 92,000 deaths each year, according to a new study. Such benefits are on par with the benefits from reductions in smoking and could save the United States about $24 billion in healthcare costs, the researchers add.

A team from the University of California, San Francisco, Stanford University Medical Center and Columbia University Medical Center conducted the study. The findings appear January 20 in online publication by the New England Journal of Medicine and also will be reported in the February 18 print issue of the journal.

The team’s results were derived from the Coronary Heart Disease Policy Model, a computer simulation of heart disease among U.S. adults that has been used by researchers to project benefits from public health interventions.

“A very modest decrease in the amount of salt, hardly detectable in the taste of food, can have dramatic health benefits for the U.S.,” said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, PhD, MD, lead author of the study, UCSF associate professor of medicine and epidemiology and the co-director of the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations at San Francisco General Hospital.

“It was a surprise to see the magnitude of the impact on the population, given the small reductions in salt that we were modeling,” Bibbins-Domingo added.

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The CHD Policy Model found that reducing dietary salt by three grams per day (about 1200 mg of sodium) would result in 11 percent fewer cases of new heart disease, 13 percent fewer heart attacks, 8 percent fewer strokes, and 4 percent fewer deaths. For African Americans, who researchers believe are more likely to have high blood pressure and may be more sensitive to salt, this degree of salt reduction could reduce new cases of heart disease by 16 percent and heart attacks by 19 percent.

“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,” said Lee Goldman, MD, MPH, senior author, executive vice president for health and biomedical sciences and dean of the faculties of health sciences and medicine at Columbia University.

The American Heart Association reports that salt consumption among Americans has risen by 50 percent and blood pressure has risen by nearly the same amount since the 1970s — despite evidence linking salt intake to high blood pressure and heart disease.

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