For the first time, a study has found a link between consuming artificially sweetened beverages and having a stroke or developing dementia later in life. Participants in this study answered survey questions related to overall health and nutrition at different time points over a ten-year period from 1991 to 2001. After the final survey was conducted, researchers collected incidents of dementia and stroke diagnoses from each participant for up to ten years.
Participants who reported drinking at least one artificially sweetened beverage a day had almost two and a half times the risk of developing dementia and almost twice the risk of having a stroke ten years later. Although both stroke and dementia can result from different diseases and conditions, the researchers also found that drinking artificially sweetened beverages specifically increased the risk for dementia from Alzheimer's disease and ischemic stroke.
In a notable contrast, they found that participants who reported drinking sugar-sweetened beverages at least three times a week did not have a higher risk of having a stroke or developing dementia.
Reasons to Think Twice
The study results give reason to think twice about consuming a large number of artificially sweetened beverages, but several important caveats should be considered. It included soft drinks and fruit juice in the same category of sugar-sweetened beverages, and there is some evidence that fruit juices contain antioxidants that may protect against dementia and stroke. It is possible that the protective effect of fruit juice counteracted the potentially harmful effects of soft drinks.
Although it is possible that the frequent consumption of sugar-sweetened soft drinks truly does not increase dementia or stroke risk, it has been associated with other health conditions that increase the risk for both dementia and stroke.
Another important consideration is that the overall incidence of either stroke or dementia was fairly low. Even in the group with the highest consumption of artificially sweetened drinks, more than 95 percent of the participants did not have dementia or stroke at the ten-year follow-up. So even though drinking artificially sweetened beverages may increase the risk of stroke and dementia, this study did not provide evidence that all those who do so will inevitably have a stroke or develop dementia.
As noted by the authors of the study, some artificial sweeteners that are now widely consumed had not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at the time the surveys were collected. For example, it is unclear if drinking beverages sweetened with stevia (a plant with sweet-tasting leaves) would increase stroke and dementia risk. In addition, different levels of potential harm have been reported for the artificial sweeteners that were approved at the time the surveys were collected. It is possible that some are more harmful to consume in large quantities, which could be a factor in the increased risk.
The long-term health consequences of consuming a large quantity of artificial sweeteners are not completely understood. But limiting your consumption of artificially sweetened drinks appears to be a fairly easy choice to reap the potentially great benefit of reducing your risk of stroke and dementia.