Diet soda can increase risk of dementia and stroke, study finds

The research, which was conducted by Boston's University School of Medicine, has also found a "worrying association" between diet fizzy drinks and Alzheimer's disease.

The new research can't prove a cause-and-effect relationship between drinking habits and health effects, but it does strongly suggest a connection, says Matthew Pase, PhD, a neurology fellow at Boston University School of Medicine and contributing author on both new papers.

For the first study, published in Alzheimer's & Dementia on March 5, 2017, researchers examined data, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and cognitive testing results, from about 4,000 people enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study's Offspring and Third-Generation cohorts. Similarly, dementia is rare in people younger than 60 years old.

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

Those who drank one to six artificially sweetened beverages a week were 2.6 times as likely to experience an ischemic stroke but were no more likely to develop dementia, Pase said. But new research shows that artificially sweetened drinks, even diet soda, can be harmful, increasing a person's chances of getting a stroke or developing dementia.

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Their findings only showed a link between daily consumption of diet sodas and increased likelihood of stroke and dementia.

According to an accompanying editorial, the current body of scientific research is inconclusive regarding whether or not drinking artificially sweetened beverages can actually lead to stroke, dementia or other cardiovascular conditions. They discovered that those who drank artificially sweetened beverages were at greater risk of experiencing a stroke or getting diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease over a 10-year follow up.

Interestingly, the researchers didn't find any link between stroke or dementia and sugary beverages or regular sodas.

Artificial sweeteners may already put people at risk of diabetes, weight gain, and other types of heart disease. For lower consumption (between 1 and 6 drinks per week), the risk is increased by an ischemic stroke (2.6 times more risk), but not to develop dementia.

It's all down to an ingredient called aspartame, which is used in most diet drinks to sweeten them.

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"I don't think we have the evidence to tell people to stop drinking artificially sweetened beverages, but I don't think we have the evidence to tell people that switching to drinking them will improve their brain health", said Hannah Gardener.

Both sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened drinks are linked to the decrease of brain volume in a middle-aged group, same researchers found in a separate study.

In addition to being an observational study which can not prove cause and effect, the authors note the study several other limitations, including that the overwhelming majority of participants were white.

The researchers found no association between the intake of sugar-sweetened drinks and the risk of stroke and dementia, although they caution that sugary beverages pose other harms to health.

People did not drink sugary sodas as often as diet sodas, which Pase said could be one reason the researchers did not see an association with regular soda since the participants may have been health conscious and just not consuming them as frequently.

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'Surely we should be trying to help consumers reduce their calorie intake, not presenting unproven claims?'

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