Soda may be bad for your brain and the diet soda could be worse

We love sodas. According  to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost one-third of Americans drink at least one sugar-laden soda or other sweetened drinks every day.  We love the cool and sizzling sweet taste of the soda, which comes mostly from “high fructose corn syrup,” a main sweetening ingredient in soda drinks.

Excess fructose in sugary drinks might damage your brain, researchers from Boston University reported.   Examining the data from the Framingham Heart Study (FHS), BU researchers found that people who drink sugary drinks such as soda frequently are more likely to have poorer memory, smaller overall brain volume, and a significantly smaller hippocampus — an area of the brain important for learning and memory.

But before you chuck your soda and reach for a diet soda, there’s more: a follow-up study found that people who drank diet soda daily were almost three times as likely to develop stroke and dementia when compared to those who did not.

For the first study, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia on March 5, 2017, researchers examined data from 4,000 people enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study’s Offspring and Third-Generation cohorts.  These are the children and grandchildren of the original FHS volunteers enrolled in 1948.  The researchers looked at people who consumed more than sugary drinks a day of any type — soda, fruit juice, and other soft drinks — or more than three per week of soda alone.  Among the “high intake” group, the researchers found multiple signs of accelerated brain aging, including smaller overall brain volume, poorer episodic memory, and a shrunken hippocampus, all risk factors for early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.  In addition, researchers found that higher intake of diet soda — at least one per day — was associated with smaller brain volume.

In the second study, published in Stroke on April 20, 2017, the researchers, using data only from the older Offspring cohort, looked specifically at whether participants had suffered a stroke or been diagnosed with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. After measuring volunteers’ beverage intake at three points over seven years, the researchers then monitored the volunteers for 10 years, looking for evidence of stroke in 2,888 people over age 45, and dementia in 1,484 participants over age 60. Here they found, surprisingly, no correlation between sugary beverage intake and stroke or dementia. However, they found that people who drank at least one diet soda per day were almost three times as likely to develop stroke and dementia.

While prior studies have linked diet soda intake to stroke risk, the link with dementia was observed for the first time in these studies.  Although the researchers took age, smoking, diet quality, and other factors into account, they could not completely control for preexisting conditions like diabetes. Diabetics, as a group, drink more diet soda on average, as a way to limit their sugar consumption, and some of the correlation between diet soda intake and dementia may be due to diabetes. However, such preexisting conditions cannot wholly explain the new findings.

These studies may not the be-all and end-all, but they provide strong data and a very strong suggestion.  It looks like there is not much of an upside to having soda drinks, and substituting the sugar with artificial sweeteners may make things worse.

Thanks for reading.

Journal References:

  1. Matthew P. Pase et al. Sugar- and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and the Risks of Incident Stroke and Dementia: A Prospective Cohort Study. Stroke, April 2017 DOI: 10.1161/STROKEAHA.116.016027
  2. Matthew P. Pase, Jayandra J. Himali, Paul F. Jacques, Charles DeCarli, Claudia L. Satizabal, Hugo Aparicio, Ramachandran S. Vasan, Alexa S. Beiser, Sudha Seshadri. Sugary beverage intake and preclinical Alzheimer’s disease in the community. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.jalz.2017.01.024

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