Understanding Sodium Intake and Cardiovascular Risk

A recent review (ME Cogswell et al. NEJM 2016; 375: 580-5) helps sort out some of the confusion regarding sodium intake and cardiovascular disease. In brief, the authors point out the excessive sodium intake is clearly linked to heart disease, stroke and death.  The importance has been questioned by some due to a few studies suggesting that low sodium intake could also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The authors note that these studies have shown only weak associations & were likely a matter of reverse causation due to the low sodium group having increased numbers of participants with numerous health issues (eg diabetes, hypertension, chronic illness and cardiovascular disease).

By looking at these results based on “Hill’s Criteria” to assess whether an association is causal, the authors show that the association of low sodium intake and cardiovascular disease indicates that this association is NOT causal.

Hill’s criteria:

  • Strength -degree which the exposure is associated with the outcome
  • Consistency -is this finding observed by different persons, in different places/times
  • Specificity -is observation limited to the exposure and the outcome
  • Temporality -did observation cause the outcome or did the outcome affect changes that lead to observation
  • Biologic gradient -?dose-response noted
  • Plausibility -is there a physiologic basis
  • Coherence -does this association conflict with other known facts
  • Experiment -is the finding affected by actions to prevent the exposure
  • Analogy -does an exposure with a similar physiologic action cause the outcome

The authors note that population exposure to sodium correlates better than individual exposure, perhaps due to measurement issues. Key points:

  • “There is strong evidence of a linear, dose-response effect of sodium reduction on blood pressure.  In addition, the evidence shows that sodium reduction prevents cardiovascular disease.”
  • “Reducing the average sodium intake by just 400 mg per day could potentially avert as many as 28,000 deaths and save $7 billion in health care costs annually in the United States.”
  • “Yet sodium levels are high before food reaches the kitchen or table, and the sodium density of the U.S. diet has changed little despite consumer education encouraging individual behavior change.”

My take: If we are to take advantage of the science to reduce cardiovascular deaths, we need to convince manufacturers and restaurants to reduce sodium.

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