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Can drinking artificially sweetened beverages lead to stroke and dementia?

Consuming at least one artificially sweetened beverage a day could increase your risk of stroke or dementia almost threefold, says a study found in the American Heart Association’s Stroke journal.

Researchers analyzed the eating and drinking habits of more than 3000 study participants over a period of seven years. They then followed the subjects for the next 10 years and found that people who drank at least one artificially sweetened drink a day were three times as likely to develop an ischemic stroke and almost three times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease dementia than people who drank less than one artificially sweetened beverage a week.  

The results of this study may seem shocking, but researchers admit there were limitations on the reliability of their findings. Most of the study participants were Caucasian and over the age of 45 for the stroke study and over the age of 60 for the dementia study.

The data was collected through questionnaires and it only showed an association between artificially sweetened drinks and the two illnesses, not cause and effect.

And while the study did not identify a true link between artificial sweeteners and stroke and dementia, health officials believe it is important to conduct further research to determine the long-term effects of artificial sweeteners on the body.

“Artificial sweeteners have been around for a while,” says Lena Beal, M.S., RDN, LD, a therapeutic dietitian at Piedmont’s Fuqua Heart Center. “Initially, they were introduced to women so they could stay slim or lose weight. Now, they're marketed to everyone as an alternative to sugar-based drinks and sodas because of the obesity epidemic.”

Drinking beverages that contain high fructose corn syrup, sucrose and processed sugar can cause weight gain, type 2 diabetes, cavities and heart disease. But choosing artificially sweetened drinks may not always be the better option.

“Artificial sweeteners are 300 to 600 times sweeter than sugar," says Beal. They offer little nutritional benefit and are much more potent than sugar. You only need a small amount to get that same sensation of sweetness, but we are running into a problem of over-usage. The people who had more frequent and recent use of artificial sweeteners in that study are the ones that showed the greater incidence of stroke and dementia.”

What beverages should you drink?

Beal says the best option to quench your thirst is water. But if you don’t like water or crave a little flavor in your drink, Beal suggests the following alternatives:

“Add some lemon-lime to seltzer water or carbonated mineral water. Or you can add a little agave, or honey if you just want flavor in your water.”

To learn more about diet and nutrition, check out our blog.

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