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<em>Madeline Sharples:</em> How Lunching With Old Friends Revealed Surprise Lessons About That Old Warning -- Hold The Salt

I want my friends to be around for more of our traditional group lunches and dinners. So I hope they'll join me in paying a very small price for a normal blood pressure rate -- eat less salt. Luckily, I got into the habit early.
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By Madeline Sharples

I find that the holiday season is a wonderful time to reconnect with old friends. Fortunately I've kept in touch with a group of people I worked with on the high school newspaper and their spouses, so we get together at least once a year. This year we met for a pre-holiday lunch. We also meet at our every-five-years reunion, and at each other's homes in the Los Angeles area. Four of the couples live nearby -- if you can call anything nearby in Los Angeles -- one couple still lives near our high school in Winnetka, Ill., and another lives in Tucson.

Out of that group of high school journalists, four have gone on to have writing careers. One started out writing and editing for edgy adults-only magazines, but later rose up the journalism career chain to become a reporter and staff columnist for the San Jose Mercury; another has had a couple of screenplays produced and now can pitch ideas with the best of them; and one is turning to novel-writing after years as a professor of women's studies. I am a published poet and author.

At one of our group dinners, we calculated we've averaged 3.5 marriages each. One guy has been married seven times; my dear friend from Arizona has tied the knot six times; several of us, twice. And this takes into account one couple that has managed to stay together since their college days.

Through the years three of us have experienced the death of a child, one has survived colon cancer, one suffers from diabetes and neuropathy. A broken neck, a couple of broken feet, and recent knee and hip replacements have given us all renewed thoughts about how precious life is.

The out-of-towners regularly come into Los Angeles, and that is another impetus for our get-togethers. However, with the realization that the holidays were almost upon us, we recently celebrated the season and toasted to our long friendship sans the Illinois and Arizona folks at a Vietnamese restaurant in Westminster -- about 22 miles southeast of Los Angeles International Airport. It had to be lunch because a couple of us can't drive at night anymore. Well, that's to be expected. We're getting very close to our 55th reunion.

While we ate the Vietnamese pho (noodle soup), notoriously full of salt, two of my women friends at the table said they are both experiencing high blood pressure -- another malady added to our already long list. They seemed quite alarmed about it. Now I've known these women most of my life and hearing about this for the first time, I paid attention. I wondered if I had high blood pressure to look forward to. Mine has always been relatively low -- I learned the lesson of limiting salt in my diet in my early 20s after my father's early heart attack. But since I've experienced swollen feet and ankles after eating salty food, I asked the first question that came to mind, "Do you watch your salt intake?"

One is a bit overweight, but shared that she is adding less salt to her food and has begun a 3 times a week exercise program. A good start, I thought, and hopefully her awareness of her salt intake and the new exercise regime will go a long way to lowering her blood pressure. My other friend didn't make a commitment.

That is when Gary, who is no longer the skinny guy he was as our newspaper's editor-in-chief, announced that he had recently read that salt is not the culprit that causes high blood pressure. Everyone at the table gasped at once in disbelief. Where did this new data come from?

After we got home from lunch, I decided to take a look at the 2011 results he was referring to from a study of almost 4,000 people in Italy, Bulgaria, Belgium, Russia, and Romania over eight years. The conclusion was "their salt intake had no effect on the development of high blood pressure." In fact it stated, "At the end of that eight year period, 56 percent of participants with low sodium intakes were more likely to have died from cardiovascular illness than those with high salt intakes."

You can well imagine our expert nutritionists at Harvard had a field day with this report and concluded it was flawed. How can we disregard over 25 years of research that shows that high salt intake in our diets causes hypertension and a greater risk of heart disease?

I think my high school editor friend, and others who accept the results of the European study, want to believe they are safe using a lot of salt on their food. It's a justification for eating what tastes good. After I emailed him the article about the Harvard reaction, he said he'd take the Harvard harangue with a grain of it.

Even so, my women friends across the table complained that their high blood pressure causes them to be dizzy and disoriented. One was rushed to the hospital for an overnight stay to bring hers down. I worry about them. I want them around for more of our group lunches and dinners. So I hope they'll join me in paying a very small price for a normal blood pressure rate -- eat less salt. Luckily, I got into the habit early.

Madeline Sharples' memoir "Leaving the Hall Light On" was published in May 2011. She writes a monthly column for Naturally Savvy as its "over 60 expert." To learn more about Madeline and to read her blog, visit her on Red Room.