Hypertension plays a part in 2.3 million cardiovascular deaths in China each year, doctors reported on Tuesday, pointing a finger at high levels of salt in the Chinese diet.
Health specialists led by Jiang He, a professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, made the estimate from a nationally representative sample of 170,000 Chinese aged 40 and over.
Extrapolating across the country, 2.3 million cardiovascular deaths in 2005 were related to raised blood pressure, they said.
Of these 1.3 million were "premature" deaths, meaning they occurred before the age of 72 in men and 75 in women, the average life expectancy in China in 2005.
Only a quarter of Chinese with high blood pressure are aware of their problem -- and just 19 percent receive drugs to treat it.
"Increased blood pressure is the leading preventable risk factor for premature mortality in the Chinese general population," the authors say, describing their findings as "striking and unexpected."
They call for hypertension to be placed on the same policy footing as preventing infectious disease.
Priority, they add, should be given to modifying lifestyle by reducing the "very high" use of salt in Chinese food.
"Treatment of hypertension reduces, but does not eliminate all blood-pressure-related risk of cardiovascular diseases. Therefore, primary prevention of hypertension should be an important component of any national strategy," says the paper, published online by The Lancet.
"Prompt action will save millions of lives in each year."