Starting children from birth on a low-salt diet may prevent high blood pressure later in life, according to a heart disease expert.

Dr. Curtis Elison of the Children's Hospital Medical Center at Boston said laboratory experiments "have suggested that high sodium intake in early life may be particularly detrimental."

He said obesity "is an extremely important factor leading to higher than normal blood pressure and is a factor that is, at least potentially, preventable."

Ellison said that, in certain animals, a high-salt diet begun immediately after weaning "leads to much more severe hypertension and early death than the same high-salt diet begun at three or six months of age."

Ellison suggested that there may be a "critical time" in early life during which a high-salt intake may be particularly harmful in setting an infant on a high blood pressure track for life.

He said no one knows how much salt should be in the American diet but any reduction of salt intake is beneficial to a person's health.

Ellison also said genetics probably plays the most important role in whether a person will have high blood pressure.

"It is ture when patients tell you, 'It runs in the family,' he said.

Ellison said other important influences on high blood pressure are obesity and dietary salt intake.

Information collected from large studies indicate that, where little or no salt is used, hypertension and its complications are essentially unknown, Ellison said.

"For cultures like our own, however, where the dietary intake of sodium chloride is usually found to be between 5 and 15 grams per day, hypertension is a common and serious problem," he said.