According to new research, a possible connection exists between soft drinks with artificial sweeteners and the risk of stroke or dementia. This latest discovery relies upon an underlying long-term study of people’s beverage habits during the target age-ranges for stroke and dementia. While there’s a need for more research on the issue, the preliminary findings suggest a need for caution when choosing diet soda.
A Look at the Study
For purposes of conducting the new diet soft drink study published in Stroke, scientists used an existing body of data, known as the Framingham Heart Study. The longest running heart study in the United States, the Framingham Study followed 2,888 people over age 45 for stroke and 1,484 people over 60 for dementia, by measuring their self-reported beverage intake for seven years. Ten years later, the subjects were re-examined for stroke and dementia.
Of the people counted in the Framingham study, there were 97 cases of stroke out of 2,888—or three percent; 82 percent of those were ischemic, caused by a blockage to a blood vessel carrying blood to the brain. Those examined for dementia resulted in 81 cases out of 1,484—or five percent. Alzheimer’s disease was the diagnosis for 63 percent of those dementia cases.
The Framingham researchers adjusted their results for variables such as age, sex, caloric intake, diet quality, physical activity and smoking.
Scientists from the Stroke study looked specifically at the cases of stroke and dementia when compared to the amount of artificially flavored soft drinks people had consumed. According to a summary from the American Heart Association, the numbers break down such that “those who reported consuming at least one artificially sweetened drink a day, compared to less than one a week, were 2.96 times as likely to have an ischemic stroke, caused by blood vessel blockage, and 2.89 times as likely to be diagnosed with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease.”
While the methodology in the new study did not prove causation, it tracked a trend between an increase in consumption of drinks with artificial sweeteners and risk of dementia and stroke.
According to Dr. Matthew Pase, from Boston University and author of the Stroke study, “Even if someone is three times as likely to develop stroke or dementia, it is by no means a certain fate.” He explained, “In our study, 3% of the people had a new stroke and 5% developed dementia, so we’re still talking about a small number of people developing stroke or dementia.”
Pase emphasizes that further studies will be needed to determine whether what has been observed in this study can prove an actual causative link between artificially sweetened drinks and strokes or dementia.
In another interview, Pase referred to the Stroke study as “hypothesis-generating.”
For instance, Dr. Ralph Sacco co-authored an editorial published in the journal Stroke, along with the study. In the editorial, Sacco explains his theory about how artificially sweetened drinks likely affect the brain.
“We believe the pathways of which artificially sweetened beverages would affect the brain are probably through vascular mechanisms,” he said.
“When the authors controlled for hypertension and diabetes and obesity the effects diminish, which implies that some of the effects of artificially sweetened beverages could still be going through a vascular pathway,” Sacco said about the Stroke study. “Many strokes are caused by hardening of arteries; and the risk of dementia is also increased by the hardening of arteries in large and small vessels. So, I believe the mechanisms may be through vascular disease, though we can’t prove it.”
Amy McElroy is a contributing editor and writer for Rewire Me. She has written for print, radio, and online publications such as The Bold Italic, The Billfold, Noodle, Cosmopolitan, BlogHer, and others. Her website, amyjmcelroy.net, lists her editorial services. She’s on twitter at @amyjmcelroy. Amy balances her work at the computer by teaching yoga and fitness.