Reducing salt in Americans' diets would save hundreds of thousands of lives over 10 years, according to a new study.
Excess salt, the primary source of sodium, contributes to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, the leading killer in the United States.
Immediately reducing people's salt consumption from current levels to the upper limit of the U.S. government guideline -- 2,300 milligrams a day -- would save 500,000 to 850,000 lives over the next decade, largely by reducing heart attacks and strokes, the study found.
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Gradually reducing sodium levels in processed or restaurant foods by 4 percent a year for 10 years would still save 280,000 to 500,000 lives over a decade, the researchers concluded.
The average American consumes about 3,500 mg per day, and men tend to ingest much more than that, according to the study, which was published Feb. 11 in the journal Hypertension.
"No matter how we look at it, the story is the same -- there will be huge benefits in reducing sodium," study lead author Pam Coxson, a mathematician at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a university news release.
For the study, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention brought together three groups of scientists who used different computer models to estimate how lowering salt intake would save lives.
All the models showed consistent, substantial benefits if current sodium intake were reduced to a level close to the upper limit of the federal guidelines.
Many people believe that taking the salt shaker off the dinner table will reduce their sodium consumption to a healthy level, but 80 percent of the sodium consumed by Americans comes from processed foods, Coxson noted.
Bread and other cereals account for about one-third of daily sodium intake. Other types of processed foods that have high sodium levels include canned soup and processed meats. Even fresh chicken is sometimes injected with salt solutions before packaging. Restaurant meals are also high in sodium.