Diet Sodas Linked to Higher Risk of Stroke, Dementia

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April 24, 2017


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Millions of Americans opt for diet sodas to avoid unnecessary weight gain or other health problems tied to sugar-heavy beverages. But those very popular diet drinks, which are artificially sweetened, are now linked to a higher risk of stroke and dementia in a new study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke.

While researchers did not establish an actual cause-and-effect association, there is a growing concern within the medical community that the daily consumption of diet beverages may prove more harmful than beneficial.

“When it comes to sugar, you’re better off with simply less of the real stuff (sugar) than a lot of the fake stuff,” says Cathy Clark-Reyes, R.D., a dietitian with Baptist Health Primary Care.

For the new study, researchers looked at data on 2,888 adults older than 45, and 1,484 adults older than 60, from the town of Framingham, Massachusetts. The health-related information came from the Framingham Heart Study, a project coordinated by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and Boston University.

Researchers from Boston’s University School of Medicine found that people who consume one can of artificially-sweetened soft drink a day were at three times the risk of suffering the most common form of stroke, compared to non-drinkers.

The study also indicated that diet soft drinks can increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s by 2.9 times. But the link to dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is the most common form, was found to be statistically insignificant after accounting for all lifestyle factors.

Sugar-sweetened beverages were not associated with increased risks for stroke or dementia. Nonetheless, sugary drinks have been linked to other serious conditions, including obesity and diabetes.

Impact of Artificial Sweeteners

“As the consumption of artificially sweetened soft drinks is increasing in the community, along with the prevalence of stroke and dementia, future research is needed to replicate our findings and to investigate the mechanisms underlying the reported associations,” researchers concluded.

Artificial sweeteners may have the reverse effect sought by consumers who are looking to better manage their weight by opting for the “diet” version of popular drinks.

Diet drinks contain almost no calories because they use artificial sweeteners that are hundreds or thousands of times sweeter than sugar. In some people, these sweeteners can send an even more powerful craving to the brain to seek out sweet foods, compared to real sugar. This response defeats the purpose of staying away from beverages sweetened with regular sugar.

Some individuals don’t react well to drinking too many sodas with artificial sweeteners, Clark-Reyes says. People should also restrict or stay away from regular sodas and commonly sold juices that contain too much real sugar, dietitians recommend. Previous studies have shown an association between the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and adverse health effects, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, and possibly even heart failure.

This growing public awareness of the evils of “added sugars” is what’s partially driving more people toward diet sodas.

“You are better off cutting back on sugary drinks by choosing infused water, for example, with slices of lemon or oranges in the water bottle,” says Clark-Reyes. “There are healthy alternatives that don’t involve fake sugar like that found in diet sodas.”

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