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Study questions need for most people to cut salt

A large international study questions the conventional wisdom that most people should cut back on salt, suggesting that the amount most folks consume is OK for heart health — and too little may be as bad as too much.

The findings came under immediate attack by other scientists.

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Limiting salt is still important for people with high blood pressure — and in fact, a second study estimates that too much sodium contributes to up to 1.65 million deaths each year.

The studies both have strengths and weaknesses, and come as the US government is preparing to nudge industry to trim sodium in processed and restaurant foods.

The first study’s leader, Dr. Salim Yusuf of McMaster University’s Population Health Research Institute in Hamilton, Ontario, urged keeping an open mind.

‘‘There are those who have made a career out of promoting extreme sodium reduction that will attack us,’’ he said. It’s better to focus on healthy lifestyles and overall diets instead of a single element, ‘‘and that is something everyone can rally around.’’

No one should view this as permission to eat more salt, he said, adding that ‘‘most people should stay where they are.’’

The studies are in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine.

Yusuf’s is observational, rather than a strict experiment, and has big limitations in its methods. But its size lends strength — more than 100,000 people in 17 countries, the largest on this topic.

It’s also from a general population, not just people at high risk of heart disease, as many past studies have been.

Researchers found:

 Sodium levels generally correlate with the risk of high blood pressure. But this link is strongest when sodium intake is high and wasn’t seen at all when consumption is low. The link also is stronger as people age.

 A different nutrient — potassium, found in vegetables and fruits — seems to lower blood pressure and heart risks, and offsets sodium’s effect.

 People who consume 3 to 6 grams of sodium a day (about 8 to 15 grams of salt) had the lowest risk of heart problems or death from any cause during the nearly four-year study. More or less sodium raised risk. About three-fourths of the world’s population is in the ideal range. Americans average roughly 4 grams a day.

Guidelines from various groups for heart disease prevention recommend 1.5 to 2.4 grams of sodium a day. The American Heart Association advises no more than 1.5 grams.

‘‘These are now the best data available,’’ Dr. Brian Strom said of the new study. Strom, chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, led an Institute of Medicine panel last year that found little evidence to support very low sodium levels.

The study was sponsored by the McMaster institute, nonprofit and government groups and industry, but funders had no role in running it.

The countries included Canada but not the United States; China accounted for 42 percent of participants. About 40 percent had high blood pressure.

Sodium levels were estimated from a single urine test instead of the preferred method of over 24 hours at multiple times, which Yusuf said was impractical in such a big group.

That drew criticism from a host of scientists.

‘‘This is a fundamental flaw’’ that undermines confidence in the results, said Dr. Elliott Antman, a Brigham and Women’s Hospital cardiologist who is president of the Heart Association.

The second study in the journal, on how much sodium contributes to heart-related deaths, was led by Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of Tufts University and the Harvard School of Public Health, and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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