Sugary drinks linked to higher risk of early death, especially for women, study finds

The more sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) someone drinks per day, the greater their risk of premature death due to heart disease or cancer, according to new research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published Monday in the journal Circulation.

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"Our results provide further support to limit intake of SSBs and to replace them with other beverages, preferably water, to improve overall health and longevity," lead author Vasanti Malik said in a university news release.

For the new long-term study of Americans, Malik and his team analyzed data from 80,647 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study between 1980 and 2014 and from 37,716 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (1986-2014). All study participants answered lifestyle and health questionnaires every two years.

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Researchers adjusted for any major diet and lifestyle factors and found that drinking one to four SSBs per month was linked with a 1 percent increased risk of early death; two to six drinks per week was linked with a 6 percent increase; one to two per day with a 14 percent increase and two or more SSBs per day was linked with a 21 percent increase.

Heart disease was the primary cause of premature death, followed by colon and breast cancers.

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According to the study, “the increased early death risk linked with SSB consumption was more pronounced among women than among men” and there was also a “particular strong link” between SSBs and increased risk of early death from heart disease.

In fact, compared with folks who don’t frequently drink SSBs, those who drank two or more servings per day of SSBs had a 31 percent higher risk of early death from cardiovascular disease. One extra serving per day was linked with a 10 percent increased risk of heart disease-related premature death.

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What about artificially sweetened beverages?

According to researchers, “replacing SSBs with ASBs was linked with a moderately lower risk of early death,” but there was also a link between drinking at least four servings of ASBs per day and an increased risk of mortality among women.

What’s so different about women that increases their risk of early death remains a bit of a mystery and “requires further confirmation,” Malik and his colleagues noted in the study. As the study is observational in nature, the findings cannot establish cause and effect.

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Malik’s advice? Stick to water.

"Drinking water in place of sugary drinks is a healthy choice that could contribute to longevity," Malik told MarketWatch in a statement. "Diet soda may be used to help frequent consumers of sugary drinks cut back their consumption, but water is the best and healthiest choice."

Previous research

“The big picture is really starting to emerge,” Malik told CNBC. “This is not random. There’s a whole lot of consistency across these findings.”

In fact, previous studies have indeed found a correlation between SSBs and weight gain-related health problems, such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

In 2017, Boston University Medical Center also published research that found a link between SSBs, poor memory and smaller brain volume. According to MarketWatch, the BU researchers observed a "daily diet-soda habit was linked to a much higher risk of suffering stroke and dementia."

And when it comes to ASBs among women, a study published in the journal Stroke last monthfound women older than age 50 who drink more than one ASB per day had a higher risk of stroke, heart attack or early death.

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Statement from the American Beverage Association

In a statement to CNN, ABA spokesman William Dermody Jr. said:

“Soft drinks, like all the beverages made by our industry, are safe to consume as part of a balanced diet... The sugar used in our beverages is the same as sugar used in other food products. We don't think anyone should overconsume sugar, that's why we're working to reduce the sugar people consume from beverages across the country. ... [L]ow- and no-calorie sweeteners have been repeatedly confirmed as safe by regulatory bodies around the world.”

How much sugar is safe to consume?

The American Heart Association recommends men eat no more than 36 grams of added sugar a day and women should limit their sugar consumption to 25 grams. An average 12-ounce can of soda (about 140-150 calories) has somewhere between 35 and 37.5 grams of sugar.

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