Diet sodas linked to increased risk of stroke in women over 50

March 14, 2019
Diet sodas on grocery store shelf
The results of a new study may make some people decide to shelve plans to drink diet instead of regular soda. Photo by Bryce Donovan

Of course it was too good to be true.

A recent study has determined that diet drinks aren’t quite as harmless as consumers might previously have thought. According to the American Heart Association’s findings, drinking two or more diet drinks a day has shown a link to a higher risk of stroke in women over the age of 50.

“We all worry about our weight. So you choose a diet drink, thinking, ‘OK, there’s no calories in it. I’m doing something good for my body,’” said MUSC professor of epidemiology and neurology, Daniel T. Lackland, Dr.P.H. “But you are also tricking your brain to start a metabolic process for sugar that isn’t there.”

The problem with that, Lackland explained, is when the body doesn’t get what it’s expecting, it becomes confused on how to respond. In essence, your pancreas produces insulin to deal with anticipated sugar. But when no sugar arrives, the metabolic process is disrupted. As a result, when you actually do consume sugar, your body isn’t sure what to do. It’s been fooled too many times. Consequently, over time this disruption can lead to obesity, diabetes and a host of health problems.

In the AHA study, researchers analyzed data on 81,714 postmenopausal women between the ages of 50 and 79. The study had an average follow-up time of nearly 12 years.

Researchers found that women who reported drinking more than one diet soda or other artificially sweetened drink a day had a higher risk of stroke caused by a blood clot. The association between diet drinks and stroke risk was even stronger in African-American women.

In fact, compared with women in the study who consumed diet drinks less than once a week or not at all, women who consumed two or more per day were:

  • 23 percent more likely to have a stroke.
  • 31 percent more likely to have a clot-caused (ischemic) stroke.
  • 29 percent more likely to develop heart disease (fatal or non-fatal heart attack).
  • 16 percent more likely to die from any cause.

Additionally, women who drank two or more artificially sweetened beverages a day but had no history of heart disease or diabetes were 2.44 times more likely to have a stroke caused by blood clot than those who didn’t. That disparity rose to 3.93 times in African-American women.

The study did not focus on specific brands of drink or artificial sweeteners.

The AHA recognizes that diet drinks may help replace high calorie, sugary beverages but recommends water (plain, carbonated and unsweetened flavored) as the best choice for a no-calorie drink. 

“The key here — like it is with just about anything — is moderation. Sure, it’s not the fun answer, but we just need to be smart about how much of anything we eat or drink,” Lackland said. “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

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