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article imageArtificial sweeteners linked to stroke and dementia risk

By Tim Sandle     Apr 22, 2017 in Health
A new warning has been made about artificial sweeteners. A study suggests drinking a can of diet soft drink a day is linked with a three times higher risk of stroke and dementia.
The new research, summarized in USA Today, presents troubling news for it suggests that drinks flavored with artificial sweeteners raise the risk of serious illness to the same level as heavily sugared drinks. The research was undertake by the American Heart Association and it has been published in the journal Stroke ("Sugar- and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and the Risks of Incident Stroke and Dementia"). In the paper the authors conclude:
Drinking at least one artificially sweetened beverage daily was associated with almost three times the risk of developing stroke or dementia compared to those who drank artificially sweetened beverages less than once a week.
This finding is made after the researchers adjust the study population for age, sex, education (which they did as part of their analysis of dementia), calorific intake, diet quality, physical activity and smoking. These factors were correlated against higher recent and overall intake of artificially sweetened soft drinks.
For the research, data was drawn from the U.S. Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort. This was made up of a data set of 2,888 people. These people were primarily Caucasian, aged over the age of 45 for the stroke study and aged of 60 for the dementia part of the study. The participants were tracked over a period of seven years, reporting on their eating and drinking habits by completing questionnaires. The data was reviewed for cases of stroke or demented. This information was then cross-checked back to the dietary information.
The important thing to note with the research, which has been reported by various media (such as The Guardian) is that it is a long-term observational study. Such a study is not able to prove cause and effect; instead it reveals a trend and attempts to normalize the data to find a common cause. This does not mean, however, that other factors influence the trend. One bias of the study is with the age of the participants. A second bias with the ethnic make-up: the participants were overwhelmingly white. Here it could be that cultural preferences influence how often people select sugary or artificially sweetened drinks.
Another factor that could influence the data is the phenomenon of “reverse causality”. In this scenario, some of the participants could have realized they are at a high risk of a stroke, so they switch their behavior by choosing diet drinks. Perhaps an earlier high consumption of sugary drinks helped cause the health problem? With dementia, once factors like genes, diabetes, heart disease, cholesterol levels and weight, the association with diet drinks was less strong, according to a review of the research by Dr Rosa Sancho, who is head of research at Alzheimer’s Research U.K. (in an interview in The Guardian).
In addition, with the soft and fizzy drinks, the study did not distinguish between the types of artificial sweeteners used in the beverages(some, like aspartame, have a more controversial history than others). Another area to consider is whether the elevated risks, if they are founded, with drinking beverages flavored with artificial sweeteners outweigh the consumption of beverages with added sugar, where sugared drinks raise the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and stroke. So, while the results of the study are interesting, further data collection and analysis is needed.
More about artificial sweeteners, sweetners, Soft drinks, Fizzy drinks
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