Know your numbers, eat less salt

Mirta Roses Periago
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High blood pressure – the “silent killer” – is also quite democratic. In only 16 countries in the world are less than 35% of those aged over 25 suffering from high blood pressure, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data. Hypertension (HTA) increases the risk of heart attacks, stroke and kidney failure, and causes blindness and heart failure.

High blood pressure causes 9 million deaths every year. One in three adults suffers from hypertension; one in three with hypertension does not know they have this disease; one in three adults treating their hypertension cannot keep it under the threshold of 140/90, which is still higher than ideal. 

This is a phenomenal contributor to the non-communicable chronic diseases (NCDs) threat faced by all countries, but mostly by low- and middle-income ones (which suffer 80% of NCD-related deaths). Even worse, the high-speed wave of the NCDs epidemic is moving to younger age groups and poorer people. Africa is the region with the fastest rate increase for high blood pressure and other NCDs.

Addressing salt intake, tobacco use and excessive alcohol consumption while also promoting a balanced diet, a healthy body weight and regular exercise are the key steps to preventing NCDs.

The WHO recommendation for salt consumption is 5 grams (2,300 mgrs of sodium) per day. Recent surveys in the Americas region show consumption of up to 2.4 times as much. Consumers are unaware of this since most of the salt comes as hidden sodium in processed food.

Reducing salt intake costs just US$ 0.04 to US$ 0.30 per person, and the rewards are huge. A Canadian study of 18 Latin American countries show that reducing sodium intake by 10% per year could prevent 593,000 cardiovascular events and save 54,000 lives.

To do so, policy-makers, food producers, social entrepreneurs, consumer advocates, academics, people in the media and professional groups are coming together with innovation and ingenuity. Bakers have set targets to progressively reduce salt in bread; restaurants are announcing “no shaker, no ash tray, keep these away” and flagging low-salt menus; schools and companies are changing specifications to meal providers; and the processed food industry is researching new technologies.

In the Americas, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Suriname, Uruguay and the US are all using social media to raise awareness, combined with food industry changes to labelling, changes in production processes and food formulation, and better access to fresh fruit and vegetables.

The wellness revolution is rolling out. An easy way to take part, and safeguard your health, is to know your numbers and say “no salt please”.

In a series of blog posts curated by the World Economic Forum’s Health Team, a number of leading voices will present their perspectives on health and healthcare in the run-up to World Health Day on 7 April.

Mirta Roses Periago is Director Emeritus Pan American Health Organization (PAHO),The Americas, and a Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Well-Being and Mental Health.

Image: An employee prepares a snack in a Berlin eatery REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

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