Study: Excess salt at dinner can cut life expectancy by two years

Extra salt from a salt shaker every day at dinnertime may contribute more than flavor to your life — according to a new study, those who always add extra salt to cooked food are more likely to die early than those who rarely do.

Researchers looked at data from more than 500,000 people and found that those who added extra salt to their meals at the dinner table had a 28 percent increased risk of premature death compared to those who didn’t add extra salt.

The study notes that this means that by age 50, women and men had 1.5 and 2.28 years, respectively, shaved off their life expectancy.

“To my knowledge, our study is the first to evaluate the relationship between adding salt to foods and early death,” Lu Chee, a professor at Tulane University and the study’s lead author, said in a press release.

It provides new evidence to support recommendations for modifying eating behaviors to improve health. Even a small reduction in sodium intake, by adding little or no salt to the food at the table, is likely to produce significant health benefits, particularly when achieved in the general population.”

The study, published Monday in the European Heart Journal, aims to investigate the effects of excess sodium on a person’s diet.

Since salt is an important part of a meal’s flavor and can vary greatly between foods, the researchers chose to focus exclusively on the effect of adding extra salt from a salt shaker right before a meal, rather than measuring the salt added in the cooking process or already present in processed foods.

The researchers used data from the UK Biobank, a research group of more than 501,000 people from the UK. When joining the study between 2006 and 2010, participants were asked to rate how often they added extra salt to their food, with four possible answers: never/rarely, sometimes, usually, or always.

Participants were followed for an average of nine years, and during this study period, 18,474 premature deaths – defined as those who died before reaching the age of 75 – were recorded among the participants.

The researchers then looked at the amount of extra salt that those who died prematurely reported adding versus those who did not die prematurely, in order to assess the effect that this added sodium might have on the risk of shortening life expectancy.

Urinary tract samples were also collected at baseline from 481,000 participants to measure sodium levels, and 189,000 participants completed diet recall surveys in more detail about their eating habits and diet.

The study adjusted for potential mitigating factors such as age, gender, smoking, alcohol intake, diet, physical activity levels, and current medical conditions.

They found that the risk of premature death increased with increasing frequency of salt addition. At age 60, women who always added extra salt to their food had a reduced life expectancy of 1.37 years and men who always added extra salt had it cut off by 2.04 years.

The researchers noted that this risk was slightly reduced in those who ate a lot of fruits and vegetables, although this relationship was not significant.

“Adding salt to foods at the table is a common eating behavior that is directly related to an individual’s long-term preference for salty-tasting foods and habitual salt intake,” Chi said. “In the Western diet, adding salt to the table accounts for 6 to 20 percent of total salt intake and provides a unique way to assess the relationship between habitual sodium intake and risk of death.”

In an editorial that accompanied the research, Annika Rosengren, senior researcher and professor of medicine at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, emphasized that these findings do not mean that we should all strive to eat bland, salt-free food, as the relationship between salt and health is complex.

“Given the various indications that very low sodium intake may not be beneficial, or even harmful, it is important to distinguish between recommendations on an individual basis and actions at a population level,” she said in the editorial. Rosengren was not involved in the work of the new study.

So far, what the collective evidence about salt seems to suggest is that healthy people who consume what constitutes normal levels of regular salt do not need to worry so much about their salt intake. Instead, to balance out the potentially harmful effects of salt, and for many other reasons, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables should be a priority at the level of the individual, as well as the population.”

However, those whose doctor has identified them as being at high risk for problems like cardiovascular disease and who already have a high salt intake should probably consider reducing the amount of salt they add in addition to the amount already in their food, she stated.

On an individual level, the optimal range of salt intake, or ‘sweet spot,’ remains to be determined, Rosengren wrote.

The study has limitations, including that participants did not indicate the exact amount of salt they were adding when surveyed about how often they added extra amounts.

Chi noted, “Because our study is the first to report an association between adding salt to foods and mortality, further studies are needed to validate the results before recommendations can be made.”

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