WEDNESDAY, May 15, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- High-salt diets have long been linked to high blood pressure, but new research finds that those with the condition may have a far greater preference for salty foods than those with normal blood pressure.
In a small study of older adults, researchers from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil found that participants with high blood pressure, or hypertension, favored bread dusted with the highest concentration of salt more than twice as much as those with normal blood pressure. Adding other seasonings to the salted bread, however, diminished the preference for salt across both groups.
The question remains: Are people with high blood pressure naturally drawn to salty foods, making them more prone to the condition?
"This is difficult to answer, but I believe that the genetic factor to salt appetite can be the beginning of the process," said study author Patricia Villela, a nutritionist and doctoral student at the university. "I was surprised by the fact that added seasonings may have changed the preference of the elderly, decreasing [their] appetite for salt."
The study was scheduled to be presented Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hypertension, in San Francisco. Research presented at scientific conferences has typically not been peer-reviewed or published, and results are considered preliminary.
About 67 million American adults -- roughly one in three -- have high blood pressure, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as do nearly 1 billion people worldwide. The condition puts people at risk for heart disease, kidney damage, strokes and vision loss, among other health problems.
Villela and her team analyzed 44 seniors with an average age of 73, including 16 with normal blood pressure readings. All were initially given three pieces of French bread with varying amounts of salt on each. In that test, 68 percent of participants with high blood pressure preferred the bread with the highest concentration of salt, compared with 31 percent of those with normal blood pressure.
Fifteen days later, participants underwent a similar test, but this time other seasonings had been added to the salted bread. In that case, only 14 percent of patients with hypertension and none with normal blood pressure favored the bread with the highest salt content.
Dr. Domenic Sica, president-elect of the American Society of Hypertension, said the findings may have been influenced by the limited number of patients involved.
"The concept of taste retraining in hypertensive patients, either young or old, is at the foundation of this [research] and is studied in a creative manner," said Sica, a professor of internal medicine and nephrology at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond. "How rapidly salt preference fell in this study is surprising, and may relate to the small number of subjects studied and a possible training effect."
Some previous studies have pointed to a genetic predisposition to craving salty foods, Villela said, and although there is no way of knowing who may have this predisposition, patients should know it is important to avoid salt despite the cravings.
"[In future research], it would be important to demonstrate that changes in habits can be maintained in the long term and the effect of these changes is reducing cardiovascular risk," she said.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about high blood pressure.