Cutting Down On Salt Is A ‘Best Buy’ To Save Millions Of Lives

For only about a dollar per person, governments could significantly improve global health

Illustration: Diana Quach
Jan 10, 2017 at 6:31 PM ET

Humans need only a tiny bit of salt to keep our nerves and muscles working smoothly, but you’d never know that from how much we consume. Salt consumption in the United States is so high that a whopping 70 percent of Americans are at risk of developing salt-related health problems, include high blood pressure and heart disease. The good news is even a little cutting down on salt could save millions of lives worldwide, and it would only cost about a dollar per person to do it.

That’s the finding of a new study in the British Medical Journal, which estimates what would happen if the world’s governments committed to programs that would reduce salt consumption by 10 percent. That may not sound like much, but the predicted results are impressive. Each year, nearly six million people who would otherwise lose that year to ill health or death would instead be healthy and productive.

There’s nothing draconian about the authors’ proposals. Instead, they consider what would happen if governments used “soft” regulations. These include supporting industry agreements to lower the salt content in foods and making sure these are followed, and educating the public on salt’s dangers. None of that is a radical departure from what many governments are already doing, and that shows in the price tag. The researchers estimate that it would only cost $1.13 per person over a ten year period to implement such programs worldwide.

This is the first study to attempt to calculate the cost-effectiveness of salt reduction for the entire planet. The researchers used demographic data and rates for related health conditions like high blood pressure to figure out what impact cutting down on salt would have in each country. They found this effort to reduce salt intake would have the greatest effect in Central Asia and Europe and the smallest in South and East Asia.

If anything, that estimate is conservative, as the researchers didn’t consider further health care savings from fewer cardiovascular disease-related problems or the economic boost of increased productivity. Throw in the bit about saving hundreds of thousands of lives every single year, and it’s enough for the researchers to declare such an effort to reduce salt intake a “best buy” for improving global health.