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Soft Drinks Might Be Rotting Your DNA

A link between the ingestion of sugary soda and premature cellular aging adds to a mounting bank of research on the potential health risks associated with soft drinks.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

So much for rotting teeth and making kids obese — a new study suggests that the regular consumption of soda might make you age faster and increase your chance of disease and early death.

The study, undertaken by researchers at the University of California San Francisco and recently published in the American Journal of Public Health, examined 5,309 US adults aged between 20 and 65. The team looked closely at telomeres, which are the protective DNA caps on the end of chromosomes in cells, and discovered a link between the ingestion of sugary soda and the shortening of telomeres in white blood cells.


Short telomeres limits cell regeneration and have been linked to a range of chronic infirmities such as heart disease, diabetes, and various types of cancer.

"We think we can get away with drinking lots of soda as long as we are not gaining weight," Dr. Elissa Epel, professor of psychiatry and lead author of the study, remarked to a local CBS affiliate. "But this suggests that there is an invisible pathway that leads to accelerated aging, regardless of weight."

The standard size of a soft drink has increased from 6.5 ounces to 20 ounces since the 1950s, according to Harvard School of Public Health. About 5 percent of Americans get at least 567 of their daily calories from soda. The sweet fizzy stuff also provides the lion's share of a teenager's daily calories (226 calories).

For those that participated in the study, the average soda consumption was 12 ounces daily. 21 percent drank 20 ounces or more per day.

The UCSF team estimated that drinking a 20-ounce serving of soda every day would correspond to 4.6 years of premature cellular aging — an effect they likened to the result of a regular smoking habit.

"Regular consumption of sugar-sweetened sodas might influence disease development, not only by straining the body's metabolic control of sugars, but also through accelerated cellular aging of tissues," Epel said. Her team did not find a corresponding link between shorter telomeres and the drinking of fruit juices or diet sodas.


Epel said that this was the first time that an association between sugary drinks and the shortening of telomeres has been made, and was quick to emphasize that the linkage shouldn't be confused with causation — not at this stage of the research, anyway. She is co-leading a new study that will follow the habits of participants over the course of weeks to determine the effect their consumption has on the aging of their cells.

"Telomere shortening starts long before disease onset," Epel noted. "Further, although we only studied adults here, it is possible that soda consumption is associated with telomere shortening in children, as well."

This discovery adds to a mounting bank of research on the potential health risks associated with drinking soda. A study that followed roughly 40,000 men for 20 years discovered that those who drank an average of one can of sugary drink each day had a 20 percent higher chance of having a heart attack. A similar study of 80,000 women found that those that drank the same amount were 75 percent more likely to develop gout.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

Photo via Wikimedia Commons