The long term effects of advice to cut down on salt in food on deaths, cardiovascular disease and blood pressure in adults

Intensive support and encouragement to reduce salt intake did lead to reduction in salt eaten. It also lowered blood pressure but only by a small amount (about 1 mmHg for systolic blood pressure, less for diastolic) after more than a year. This reduction was not enough to expect an important health benefit. It was also very hard to keep to a low salt diet. However, the reduction in blood pressure appeared larger for people with higher blood pressure.

There was not enough information to assess the effect of these changes in salt intake on health or deaths.

Evidence from a large and small trial showed that advice to reduce salt helps to maintain lower blood pressure following withdrawal of antihypertensive medication. If this is confirmed, with no increase in cardiovascular events, then comprehensive dietary and behavioural programmes in patients with elevated blood pressure requiring drug treatment would be justified.

See also the Cochrane review of short-term salt reduction trials: Jurgens 2003.

Authors' conclusions: 

Intensive interventions, unsuited to primary care or population prevention programmes, provide only minimal reductions in blood pressure during long-term trials. Further evaluations to assess effects on morbidity and mortality outcomes are needed for populations as a whole and for patients with elevated blood pressure.

A low sodium diet may help in maintenance of lower blood pressure following withdrawal of antihypertensives. If this is confirmed, with no increase in cardiovascular events, then targeting of comprehensive dietary and behavioural programmes in patients with elevated blood pressure requiring drug treatment would be justified.

Read the full abstract...

Restricting sodium intake in hypertensive patients over short periods of time reduces blood pressure. Long term effects (on mortality, morbidity or blood pressure) of advice to reduce salt in patients with elevated or normal blood pressure are unclear.


To assess in adults the long term effects (mortality, cardiovascular events, blood pressure, quality of life, weight, urinary sodium excretion, other nutrients and use of anti-hypertensive medications) of advice to restrict dietary sodium using all relevant randomised controlled trials.

Search strategy: 

The Cochrane Library, MEDLINE, EMBASE, bibliographies of included studies and related systematic reviews were searched for unconfounded randomised trials in healthy adults aiming to reduce sodium intake over at least 6 months. Attempts were made to trace unpublished or missed studies and authors of all included trials were contacted. There were no language restrictions.

Selection criteria: 

Inclusion decisions were independently duplicated and based on the following criteria: 1) randomisation was adequate; 2) there was a usual or control diet group; 3) the intervention aimed to reduce sodium intake; 4) the intervention was not multifactorial; 5) the participants were not children, acutely ill, pregnant or institutionalised; 6) follow-up was at least 26 weeks; 7) data on any of the outcomes of interest were available.

Data collection and analysis: 

Decisions on validity and data extraction were made independently by two reviewers, disagreements were resolved by discussion or if necessary by a third reviewer. Random effects meta-analysis, sub-grouping, sensitivity analysis and meta-regression were performed.

Main results: 

Three trials in normotensives (n=2326), five in untreated hypertensives (n=387) and three in treated hypertensives (n=801) were included, with follow up from six months to seven years. The large, high quality (and therefore most informative) studies used intensive behavioural interventions.

Deaths and cardiovascular events were inconsistently defined and reported; only 17 deaths equally distributed between intervention and control groups occurred. Systolic and diastolic blood pressures were reduced at 13 to 60 months in those given low sodium advice as compared with controls (systolic by 1.1 mm Hg, 95% CI 1.8 to 0.4, diastolic by 0.6 mm hg, 95% CI 1.5 to -0.3), as was urinary 24 hour sodium excretion (by 35.5 mmol/ 24 hours, 95% CI 47.2 to 23.9). Degree of reduction in sodium intake and change in blood pressure were not related. People on anti-hypertensive medications were able to stop their medication more often on a reduced sodium diet as compared with controls, while maintaining similar blood pressure control.