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How many heart attacks and strokes would we need to prevent to convince Americans to eat less salt?

March 3, 2010 | 11:59 am

What will it take to get Americans – and the food industrial complex – to get serious about taking some of the salt out of our diets?

Salt In September, a study in the American Journal of Health Promotion calculated that Americans could eliminate 11 million cases of hypertension, save $18 billion in medical costs and add 312,000 years to our collective lives by reducing our daily sodium intake from about 3,300 milligrams per day to the recommended daily maximum of 2,300 mg.

In January, another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that excising 1,200 mg of sodium from our daily diets would prevent up to 120,000 cases of cardiovascular disease, 66,000 strokes, 99,000 heart attacks and reduce annual deaths from any cause by as much as 92,000. That study found that the cost savings would add up to as much as $24 billion and save as many as 392,000 years of life.

Still not convinced? This week, researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System entered the fray with their own analysis.

They used a computer model to estimate would what happen if consumers and food-makers here copied a British salt-reduction campaign. Their conclusions: Americans between the ages of 40 and 85 would cut their salt intake by 9.5%, preventing strokes in 513,885 people and heart attacks in 480,358 others. Total savings to the healthcare system would top $32 billion, according to their study published Monday in Annals of Internal Medicine.

They also ran a computer model using another popular idea – a sin tax aimed at salt. The hypothetical salt tax was less effective, cutting salt intake by only 6% and preventing 327,892 strokes and 306,173 heart attacks. The researchers said they thought the salt tax was less feasible than voluntary efforts by the food industry to cut sodium out of their products.

The researchers also noted that cutting back on salt could have the unintended consequence of motivating consumers to eat more foods made with fat and sugar, which present their own health risks.

You can read the study here, or check out the summary for patients here.

For those who are finally motivated to cut some of the salt out of their diets – or at least give it a try – check out this list of helpful hints from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. And if you still need a little push, check out this story from the Health section about the perils of ingesting too much sodium.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: Would you rather have a little salt or a heart attack? Credit: Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times

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